An early 16th century medical manual lists barberry lozenges as a commonly used cure.
In today’s world of hypercorrective ampelography, it’s hard to believe that people didn’t used to care as much about grape names as we do in the contemporary age. Writers on agriculture didn’t began to record grape variety names on a wide scale until the latter half of the 19th century. And even those early modern ampelographers couldn’t rival today’s giddy obsessions with the etymologies of grape names.
Contemporary wine writers can’t seem to resist the urge to dip their toes in the etymological waters. And despite their access to Google Books and the growing legions of searchable encyclopedic resources available online, they continue to wax philologic (and errouneous) over the origins of ampelonyms like Sangiovese and Aglianico (even though the former doesn’t mean “the blood of Jove,” nor is the latter a cognate for Hellenic).
But in the case of Barbera, Hermes generously let the experts off the hook: Most concede that the origin of this grape name, which didn’t begin to appear in print until the 18th century, is unknown. Ian D’Agata sums up the current state of Barbera philology in his landmark work ‘Native Grapes of Italy’ (which I highly recommend to you).
“The origin of its name is unclear; Pietro Ratti of Renato Ratti feels it’s a derivation of barbaro (barbarian) due to its deep red color, while others believe the origin is vinum berberis, an astringent, acidic, and deeply hued medieval drink. Vinum berberis is different from the vitibus berbexinis referred to in a 1249 document located in the archives of Casale Monferrato, which was most likely another variety, Barbesino or Berbesino, better known today as Grignolino”.
For the record, vinum berberis was a barberry elixir. And medicinal barberry extract was more commonly applied on a lozenge (a troche, in English, trochiscus in Latin) than in a vinum or wine. Even when we turn to a more authoritative source, our grand desire to uncover Barbera’s origin story remains unfulfilled.
The Treccani Italian dictionary (a benchmark of the Italian academy) offers two possible etyma: The first is the Latin grape name albuelis, notably mentioned in Columella and Pliny. It’s a linguistic stretch, however possible (Barbera could be a metathetical reduplicative contamination). The second is that Barbera comes from the toponym Barberi, a hamlet in Turin (Torino) province.
Piedmont abounds with place names that begin in Barb-. To illustrate this, I culled this partial list from the Region of Piedmont’s official toponomastic index: Barbania Barbania Barbania Barbantana Barbara Barbarana Barbaresco Barbaria Barbarini Barbarino Barbarossa Barbarossa Barbasco Barbaso Barbassa Barbatanotta Barbato Barbavara Barbavara Barbe Barbe’ Barbe Barbei Barbella Barbellotta Barbencia Barbera Barbera Barbera Barbera Barbera Barbera Barberi Barberi Barberino Barberio Barberis Barberis Barbero Barbero Barbero Barbesina Barbet Barbetera Barbetta Barbetta Barbetti Barbiasso Barbiere Barbieri Barbieri…
Not only are there at least two places known as Barberi in Piedmont, there are at least six places called Barbera, not to mention the handful of places named Barbero. Most scholars believe that these place names come from the Latin barbarus from the Greek barbaros, meaning foreigner or foreign sounding (it’s believed to be onomatopoeic in nature, akin to the English blah blah blah). One of the reasons for this is that Piedmont is a historic borderland where foreigners crossed into and out of the Italic peninsula. The hilltop villages of Langa, for example, were once outposts that could alert valley dwellers when invaders approached. The towns also provided shelter and food for travelers passing through. It wasn’t uncommon to hear foreign accents there despite the villages’ relative isolation.
Because of Barbera’s profound connection to Monferrato and Langa (both in Piedmont) and because of Piedmont’s preponderance of place names starting in Barb and their resonance with the ampelonym, I believe that Barbera’s origin lies somewhere among the loci where it has been historically grown and consumed. Whether it’s Barberi, Barbera, Barbero, or even Barbaresco (where Barbera is also famously grown), I am convinced that the linguistic affinity with Piedmontese toponomy holds the key to its etymology. Philology is an inexact science and it’s unlikely that we will uncover the answer to this linguistic conundrum. But when we consider that so many Italian grape names are associated with the places where the varieties are grown (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, Brachetto d’Acqui), it’s not unlikely that Barbera took its same from one of the myriad “barbarian” villages in its spiritual homeland.