Oenological Firsts and Other Wine Lore

It seems that Noah was the first to endure the unpleasant after-effects of too much wine. As told in Genesis 9, 20-21, after the flood, “Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.”  Then, he got a little carried away with his new crop and got drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent:  “And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.”  The effects of this first sbornia (zboar-knee-uh) were obviously not long-lasting, as Noah lived another 350 years.


The dubious award for the first recorded bender goes to Noah.  Opera del Duomo, Florence.

Although few of us – hopefully – have had such a catastrophic experience with the vitas vinifera, this might still be a good time to take a break from all the degustazione.

Vineyards as far as the eye can see near Castelnuovo Berardenga in the south-east corner of the Chianti.

Vineyards as far as the eye can see near Castelnuovo Berardenga in the south-east corner of the Chianti.

One pleasant diversion – which will be especially welcome to those of  you who cannot bear the idea of being dragged into one more pottery/leather goods/crystal, etc. store where whoever you are travelling with is sure to spend at least a half hour oblivious to your existence – is to expand your wine knowledge in the local wine store.  

You’ll need to be on the lookout for an Enoteca – a rather odd name to be looking for when what you really want to do is check out some wine.  It comes from the time when the area we know as Italy was called Enotria (Homeland of Wine).  (This was, technically speaking, a misnomer since the vitis vinifera was first cultivated, not in Italy but in Armenia and Mesopotamia.) 

Enoteca (wine store) in Pienza.

Enoteca (wine store) in Pienza.

And while we’re on the topic of names, Italia – which means ‘land of the calf’ – came along much later.   As the large mammals that once roamed the area began to disappear, hunting gave way to farming and breeding livestock.   No wonder there are so many variations on vitello – alla parmigiana, al limone, alla marsala, tonnato….

My favourite take on the vitello theme - Vitello al limone

My favourite take on the calf theme – Vitello al limone.

As for la Toscana, it’s named for the Etruschi (Etruscans) or Tusci, the first inhabitants of the region to have established what we typically refer to as a ‘civilized’ society.

We also have the Etruscans to thank for the first Chianti.  The Etruscan word for water is ‘clante‘ and they were the first in the area to learn how to turn grape ‘water’ into wine.

Chianti Classico

Zones of the Chianti Classico

If you spend any time at all in the Chianti region you’re bound to come across the Gallo Nero (black cockerel).  I don’t mean the real thing – although I did come across one once, not in Tuscany, but in northern Italy, in the gardens of Isola Madre on Lake Maggiore.

LIke all the other winged creatures on Isola Madre, this fat gallo nero waddles around in complete freedom.

Like all the other winged creatures on Isola Madre, this gallo nero waddles around in complete freedom.

It’s the symbol for Chianti Classico wines.  How it ended up being the symbol for such a prestigious wine has nothing to do with wine and everything to do with a starving rooster.

There is to this day a rivalry between Florence and Siena that would be hard to find between cities in Ontario – although, as a native Torontonian, it is possible that my viewpoint on this may be a little skewed.  In ogni caso (in any event), the intense rivalry between the two Tuscan cities goes back a long way.   They spent most of the Middle Ages at war, fighting for control of Tuscany.  Eventually, they decided to settle things once and for all.  I know life could be brutal in those days, but what they decided to do sounds almost quaint.  They decided to hold a competition.


Vineyards near Panzano

Not a wrestling match or a hockey game.   The outcome of hundreds of years of war would be depend on  … a horse race.  At the first crow of the rooster, a horseman from each city would take off toward the rival city.  Where they met would forever mark the border of their respective territories.


The night before the race the Florentines put their rooster to bed at the usual time.  But without its evening meal.  The next morning the famished rooster, as the wily Florentines had hoped, started crowing much earlier than usual.  Their horseman dashed off and of course met the Sienese rider who had barely made it out of Siena.  Florence gained control of a major portion of the Chianti region, which was then, as it is today, an extremely valuable hunk of Tuscany.   And in honour of that cockerel, they chose it as the symbol for the wines produced in the region.


“The Sun with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the Universe to do.” (Galileo)  Vineyards near Montalcino.

I know we’re exploring the Chianti region right now, but since we’re looking at things related to wine history, there is a wonderful museum in Montalcino, only 55 km south-west of Castelnuovo Berardenga, that I think is well worth a little detour.   It’s at the Banfi Winery.

Castello di Banfi

Castello di Banfi

The Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) traces the evolution of the art of glassmaking, and since we’re at a winery, the focus is on wine glasses and bottles.

Misshapen Damigiani

Somebody probably got a lot of grief the day these were made, but I think they’re gorgeous. Damigiane ‘rejects’ near the entrance.


An antique map shows the areas of glass production and major commercial wine routes during the Imperial Roman Era. Is the map just off, or did elephants really roam the Sahara Desert?


Next to the map is a model replica of a ship’s hold filled with the anfore in which wine was shipped in those days. (In case you’re wondering, I took this photo on a Point and Shoot, before I got my DSLR and discovered the joys of the polarizing filter.)


My favourite was the BROCCA A SERBATOIO MULTIPLO, Palestine, 4th century AD. Three flasks were blown and then joined by heat to create a single pitcher that could hold three different liquids.


BROCCA A SERBATOIO MULTIPLO. Three pitchers in one.
But which three liquids was it designed to hold. Wine, water and…?


Damigiana in the traditional wicker basket.

According to one theory, the damigiana (dah-mee-jan-uh) was named in honour of the curvaceous body of a French woman called Dame Jeanne.

In case you’re wondering if these monstrous containers – some can hold up to 54 litres – are a thing of the past or a trendy decorator’s item, when I lived in Italy, every fall the head of the family I lived with would load a couple of the big ones into the family car, which was only marginally bigger than the Cinquecento, and head to the local wine consortium.  I loved accompanying him down to the cellar whenever it was time to fill up the litre bottles for the table.  He would put a flexible plastic tube not much bigger than a straw into the damigiana, then suck on the “straw” and as soon as wine started up the straw, he would pop the end of the tube into the bottle.  It was my introduction to the siphon.

Traditional Tuscan flasks

Farmers’ flasks. Late 19th, early 20th century. Used by the charcoal burners of the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany.

In the 14th century Tuscan glassmakers started making a new container for transporting wine – il fiasco.  If you’ve ever wondered why, when something turns out in shambles, we sometimes call it a fiasco, I don’t have a definitive answer.  However, there are a few theories, some marginally less questionable than others.  The best, in my opinion, traces its origins to an old Italian expression, fare il fiasco, which had to do with playing cards. The players would agree that whoever lost would “do” the fiasco, i.e.. pay for the next bottle.  Over time ‘doing the fiasco’ came to be linked with the idea of making a mistake that could end up costing you a fair amount.

View from the Castello Banfi parking lot

Castello Banfi Vineyards

Just one last thing before we go visit some more wineries.  You may have always assumed that mankind was born knowing how to do it, but it seems we have the Romans to thank for the first kiss.

While the women of ancient Greece were allowed to enjoy a moderate amount of wine, for five, long centuries after the founding of the empire, Roman women were forbidden even to smell it.  This of course was grossly unfair and would not fly at all today, at least in the parts of the world I’m comfortable in.  It did however lead to a surprising and totally delightful custom – il bacio (ba-cho) – the kiss.   And we’re not talking about chocolates.


According to Roman law, if a husband discovered his wife had been imbibing, he was entitled to kick her out of the house.  Consequently, when a Roman returned from typical Roman activities such as conquering territories or building monuments to the glory of the Empire, in order to ensure his wife had remained alcoholically chaste during his absence, he would sniff at her lips.  And those sniffs evolved into …

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