The pivotal moment of the tale is a feast that the marchioness prepares to welcome her guest. Wine is served, of course. The narrator notes that there were “vini ottimi e preziosi.”
Ampelographers widely agree that the earliest known mentions of Barbera date back to the 18th century. But they’re not surprised by this. Surveys of Italian grape varieties and viticulture began to appear as early as the 14th century. But they focused primarily on central and southern Italy. Although there are some notable precursors (like Agostino Gallo’s “Giornate”, published in Brescia in the 16thcentury), it’s not until the late pre-industrial age that we first start to find descriptions of grape growing and winemaking in northern Italy. Piedmont (where Monferrato is located) doesn’t begin to get much attention from ampelographers until the mid- and late 19th century.
But viticultural Monferrato has a truly illustrious mention in the 14th century in one of Italy’s greatest literary works: Boccaccio’s Decameron. The tale of the “Marchioness of Monferrato” (Day 1, Novella 5) recounts the story of the king of France and the wife of the Marquess (Marquis) of Monferrato. The king has heard of her beauty and wants to seduce her during her husband’s absence. You can read the novella in English here (it won’t take you more than 10 minutes to read it; please do check it out because it’s a great story and very topical today in the light of the #MeToo movement).
During Boccaccio’s lifetime, Monferrato was already renowned as a rich and fertile March, a kingdom borderland (hence the titles marquess and marchioness) known also for its contribution to the crusades (the marchioness’ husband, a paladin, is on a crusade when the king visits and the king is also on his way to join a crusade). The pivotal moment of the tale is a feast that the marchioness prepares to welcome her guest. Wine is served, of course. The narrator notes that there were “vini ottimi e preziosi.” Most translators render the phrase as “excellent and rare wines” and it’s a good translation in my opinion.
But if we look a little more closely at the word “preziosi” or “precious” (its English cognate), we discover that it had a particular meaning during the Italian Middle Ages, not dissimilar from its meaning today but not exactly the same. In fact, in Boccaccio’s Italian writings, the term “prezioso” is reserved, for example, for the “precious blood of martyrs”. It’s not uncommon in the Italian Middle Ages for the word to be applied to the “precious blood of Christ” to give you another example. While I agree with the translation “rare”, it’s clear that by “vini preziosi” Boccaccio and his narrator meant “quasi sacred wines”, the very best of the best.
Were the wines that the marchioness served to the king made from Barbera? It’s impossible to say. Was Monferrato already renowned as a region for the production of fine wine, “worthy a king,” by the late Middle Ages? There’s no doubt.
Whether or not they were made from Barbera, we can be certain that the production of fine wine in northern Italy can trace its origins, in part, to Monferrato. Long before the Langhe Hills, Novara, or Valtellina would become famous for their Nebbiolo, Monferrato already produced wines fit for a king.