Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the Meaning of Pra di Pò and Prapò

While writing yesterday's piece about Sergio Germano's final vintage of his Dolcetto d'Alba "Pra di ," I had a question in the back of my mind, one I'd hoped to address but eventually decided to save for another day. (Today, in other words.) That question — What does "Pra di " mean? — is one I'd pondered for many a year yet never truly been able to answer.

Even one of my go-to references for the region, "A Wine Atlas of the Langhe: The Great Barolo and Barbaresco Vineyards," published by Slow Food Editore, sheds no light beyond, "The derivation of this odd name is unknown...". So, what gives? Let's step back and take a look.

Pra di is one of two accepted names, the other being Prapò, for a vineyard located toward the northern end of the eastern slope of the grand hill that forms the commune of Serralunga d'Alba, one of the primary villages of the Barolo region. Already losing you? Yep, I know it's tough to picture the lay of the land without actually standing there. Even Google Maps and Google Earth don't quite do the job, so you'll have to bear with me when it comes to directions and orientation. Or go to Serralunga and see for yourself.

Maybe the above picture will help. It's actually taken not from Pra di but rather from Cerretta, its somewhat more famous neighbor located north and, as the car drives, slightly uphill from Pra di . That's the town center of Serralunga d'Alba, crowned by its beautiful old tower, that you can see at center toward the horizon. Looking straight down at the slice of Cerretta that dominates the photo, were you to walk just past the ridge line that bisects the photo you'd find yourself in turn looking down at Pra di .

Though the aforementioned "Wine Atlas" seems to suggest that "Pra di " is the preeminent name for the site, looking at it from the wine perspective might lead one to think otherwise. To my knowledge, only the Ettore Germano estate, currently via its head man Sergio Germano, uses the "Pra di " nomenclature, and then only for the Dolcetto that, after the 2008 vintage, will no longer be produced. Germano's cru Barolo from the same vineyard site is named "Prapò," as are all other wines I know of that bear the same cru designation, regardless of producer. (If I'm wrong about this, anyone, please let me know.)

For some time now, I've conjectured that the "Pra" part of "Pra di " was a truncated version of the Italian word for meadow: "prato." It wouldn't be the first Italian wine I've encountered that follows that sort of naming convention, "Pradi___," or "meadow of (fill in the blank)." The question remaining — What does mean? — continues to elude me, though. The river Po comes to mind but, though it does flow through Piemonte, it is not visible from Serralunga; an unlikely answer, it would seem.

In hopes of clarification, I turned to my man of the etymon, linguist extraordinaire Dr. Jeremy Parzen at Do Bianchi. Jar had this to say:

"A quick look at all my toponomastic references for Langa revealed only that "the origins of the strange name of this vineyard are unknown." [Sounds like we may be using the same reference manual.]

The philologist in me wants to think that praepositus (Latin, literally, positioned before or first) could be a possible etymon. And likewise, the linguist in me feels obliged to point out that pra di could be false etymology.

More often than not, the origins of these names are found blowing in the wind. Because the toponyms usual predate the abolishment of sharecropping in Italy, the ampelonyms commonly evolved through an oral tradition that defies and denies our desire to know the fons origo or original source of the words."
That positioned before or first interpretation made sense to me, as it would seem to be a logical description of the position of Pra di relative to its uphill neighbor, Cerretta, in relationship to the village of Serralunga itself. (Remember the photo above?) The problem is that such an interpretation assumes that Cerretta would have been held historically in some precedence above Prapò, something that I can not attest to prior to the modern era and that could even now be argued.

I've posed the same question(s) directly to Sergio Germano. If he's able to shed any clearer light on the matter, I'll be sure to report back. If not, and until then, I suppose the meaning of "Pra di " will continue to be a mystery of linguistic history.

In spite of all that lack of clarity, there's one thing of which I'm certain. Dolcetti such as those produced by Sergio Germano are a natural match for one of the traditional culinary products of Piemonte: just barely cured salumi. The salume pictured above was made by Sergio's father-in-law and is sliced and served with great generosity, and as a fantastic foil to the wines, in the tasting room at the Germano estate.


Unknown said...

I wouldn't want to hazard a guess unless I had a deep local knowledge of the terrain and the social history of the place. One thing I've learned about Italy is that just about all etymologies are false.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for weighing in, Terence. Obviously I have no such compunction about hazarding a guess.... I'd hardly say I know the social history of the place but I do have a good enough sense of the terrain that I felt compelled to ask and ponder.

Do Bianchi said...

David, thanks for the shout out. I hope my message was helpful. Agreed with Terence on both points. Case in point, I recently discovered that Monte Ilcinese is probably not the etymon of Montalcino! Believe it or not... I was really just riffing in what I wrote and I am very much looking forward to finding out what Germano family has to say. A while ago, I discovered that a vineyard name Licenziana actually came from the fact that someone wrote Vicenziana incorrectly in a register. Another such discovery awaited me in Colli Euganei but I'll save that for an upcoming post... thanks again! hoping to see you later this month...

David McDuff said...

Two more items to share, both received in other forums.

The first, from Joseph DiLuzio, PhD, another doctor of language and an ex-coworker of mine.

"The long and short is: "Pra" no doubt "meadow" (truncated version of "prato" as it is in "Pra di Cà" (as you know, buddy), "di" is "of," but "Pò," well, we don't know apparently. Sergio himself doesn't. Upshot: 3 or 4 explanations have made their way to 'em and they're equally convincing/unconvicing."

And the second, from Sergio Germano, in response to my email:

"The origin of Prapò is from an old owner of this land.
- Pra in piedmontese dialet means grass or meadow
- Po is a nick name of Paul (Paolo)
- Grass of Paul
- Prato di Paolo
- Pra di Pò or PraPò"

Thank you both, gentlemen!

For obvious reasons, I'm inclined to honor Sergio's interpretation. That said, it does ring of the very type of oral tradition and possible false etymology of which both Jeremy and Terence spoke.

For now, "Paolo's meadow" it is. Who knows what other interpretations we'll discover in the future.

Rinascimento Wine Company said...

And of course, Pra di Pò, follows (or predates) a famous name from Burgundy, Chambertin, which some believe comes from the combination of "Champs" and some guy named "Bertin" who planted his grapes next to the Clos de Bèze vineyard in the 12th Century. Legend has it.

Whether the etymology of the place name is correct, or not, to me really doesn't matter as I just love having some sort of story behind the naming that tells me a little bit more about the place.

That said, my favorite right now is from Domaine de Bel Air, who named one of his Bourgueil with the moniker, "les Vignt lieux dits", meaning "the 20 so called" or "the 20 place names" as he thinks naming each individual plot of land in the vineyard has become a little precious.

Always fun reading. Thanks, David.

Do Bianchi said...

There's no doubt that Germano's explanation is the one to follow here, as he is the closest to the source and to the ground. I do think it's important to make a distinction between "false" and "folkloric" etymology. And while, Germano's may very well be folkloric, the eytmon is probably the most "correct" inasmuch as it reflects the source closest to the signifier. Philology is never an accurate or exact science. And meaning is comprised of layers, like an onion, some closer to the origin but all interwoven with the original meaning.

Having said that, I did discover that _prassà_ means "stony" in Piemontese and _prassa_ "stone." Just another possible path of exegesis for this lazy Saturday morning.

David McDuff said...

@Justin - Thanks, pal. Glad you enjoyed the post. I have to agree, the story is just as if not more important than the "real" history. It's what helps to make the wine take on a life beyond just what's in the bottle. A true human endeavor.

@DoBi - I do love the way you think about these things, man. The quest never ends. For now, though, the meadow of Paolo's stones it is!

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