A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Coda di Volpe - Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio, Campania, Italy

Buckle up friends and neighbors, because we're about to go on a wild ride through Roman literature, religious symbolism, volcanoes, fuzzy little animals and of course, a grape and some wine.  What we're talking about today is the grape Coda di Volpe, which means "tail of the fox."  The story goes that the grape is so named because the clusters have a slight curve to them that resembles a fox's tail, which you can kind of see in the picture to the left at the very bottom of the bunch.  I started to look into who actually gave it that name, and ended up going on the journey you see below.

The source of the name Coda di Volpe is purported to be Pliny the Elder.  Pliny wrote a massive 37 volume work entitled The Natural History which has an entire volume (volume 14) devoted to matters of the vine.  Within Volume 14, there are 29 chapters dealing with various subjects related to grapes and vines, but it is chapter 4, entitled "Ninety-One Varieties of the Vine" where the mention of Coda di Volpe happens.  I found an online translation of the work (translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley in 1855) that translated the relevant block of Latin text as "the produce of the alopecis, which resembles in colour a fox's tail." Nearly every secondary source I've read about the grape maintains that the name comes from the shape of the bunch, so I was very curious to see that, in what appears to be the first mention of the grape in print, it is not the shape that is credited as being the source of the name, but rather the color.

The annotation maintains that this "Alopecis," or "fox-vine" is a currently unknown variety, but Nicolas Belfrage, in his Brunello to Zibibbo and Bastianich and Lynch in their Vino Italiano seem fairly convinced that this reference is in fact to Coda di Volpe.  Their certainty seems to stem directly from the Latin text, where the phrase rendered in English as "fox's tail" is, in the original Latin, the phrase "caudas vulpium."  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see how we got from "caudas vulpium" to Coda di Volpe.  This is the only occurrence in the entire Natural History of the phrase "caudas vulpium" and it is the only appearance in any work of the word "Alopecis," so if we believe that Alopecis is the ancient name for Coda di Volpe and that the modern name comes from the Latin phrase "caudas vulpium," it's hard to say that the grapes are named for the shape of the bunch when the source material makes the link based on the color of the grapes.  What is really interesting, though, is if you look at the passage in the original Latin on the same website, it allows you to click on individual words to get a translation.  Clicking on "Alopecis" brings up the following definition: "a kind of vine which produces clusters resembling the tail of a fox."

The main problem here, I think, is due to the ambiguity of the original Latin text.  The full sentence in Latin is: "contra damnantur etiam visu cinerea et rabuscula et asinusca, minus tamen caudas vulpium imitata alopecis." My Latin is a little rusty, but I don't see any reference in that phrase either to the color or the shape of the Alopecis.  The end of the sentence reads to me something like "the Alopecis, which resembles a fox tail."   The ambiguity and confusion seems to stem from trying to interpret the way in which the Alopecis resembles a fox-tail, because there is no explicit aspect of a fox-tail that the Alopecis is being said to resemble.  The context of the sentence as a whole is centered around colors ("cinerea" is ash-colored, "rabuscula" is russet-colored and "asinusca" means something like donkey-colored), so reading the text in that light certainly makes the translation quoted above make more sense.  We're making a comparison between all of these objects and color is what groups the first three together.  It would be odd to suddenly shift to a different kind of feature (such as shape) for the final item in the comparison.  Because of all that, I'm inclined to buy the color argument more than the shape one.

It is, of course, possible that the fox-tail shape story developed completely independently of anything else and there is absolutely no connection between Pliny's description of Alopecis and the modern day Coda di Volpe.  That feels like it would have to be a pretty big coincidence, so I tend to doubt that's the case.  What I suspect may have happened is that along the way, someone who wasn't familiar with Pliny's text was trying to understand for themselves how Coda di Volpe could have possibly gotten its name, and just decided that since it kind of looks like a fox-tail shape, that must be where it came from.  The story has reinserted itself into the gloss on some of the texts and, in one case, has inserted itself wholesale directly into a translation.  Philemon Holland's 1601 translation renders the passage: "and yet the fox-tailed grape Alopecis (for that it resembleth Rainards taile)."  The bit in the parentheses there is not contained in the original Latin text at all and is a full insertion by the translator, indicating either that the shape explanation was relatively wide spread by this time, or indicating that Holland himself may be the source of the confusion.

If you've stuck through all that, then you're a real trooper and I appreciate it.  Now that we've exhausted ourselves on the history of Coda di Volpe's name, we can take a look at the name of the region where this particular bottling is from, Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio.  It turns out that this name is itself not without controversy.  The most widely believed origin for the name Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio is that when Jesus was on his way up to Heaven, he looked down at the Bay of Naples and was so moved by its beauty that he wept tears of joy which fell on Mount Vesuvius, causing grapevines to spring up where they landed.  Some believe that this is a modernization of an ancient Roman myth about Bacchus weeping and having vines spring up from his tears, but I'm having a hard time finding any source material for that.  Another legend has it that when Lucifer was cast out of Heaven, he grabbed a piece of Paradise which fell with him, landing at the foot of Vesuvius, where it framed the Bay of Naples.  Jesus wept when he saw the loss and his tears landed on the slopes of Vesuvius, where grapevines sprang up.  Yet another story has it that when Lucifer was cast from Heaven, he landed at Vesuvius and began to destroy everything in sight.  Jesus wept when he saw the destruction and, you guessed it, his tears landed on the slopes of Vesuvius and grapevines sprang up.

Whatever the true origin of the name is, we do know that some deity cried for some reason and those tears were so magical that grapes sprang up where they fell.  The modern explanation for how a wine gets the name Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio on its label is much more mundane.  There is a Vesuvio DOC that surrounds the ancient volcano and where the white wines must be made up of at least 80% Coda di Volpe and or Verdeca with a 35% minimum of Coda di Volpe and a maximum of 20% Falanghina and/or Greco.  As you might imagine, the soils around Vesuvius are volcanic, which happens to be Coda di Volpe's favorite kind of soil to hang out on.  The red and rosato wines must be at least 80% Piedirosso and/or Sciascinoso with at least 50% Piedirosso and at most 20% Aglianico.  Any producer is entitled to put "Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio" on their label if the wines have a slightly higher alcohol content, a whopping one half-degree above normale.  Essentially, the Lachryma Christi prefix to the wine's name is a different way to say Riserva and nothing more.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Feudi di San Gregorio Lachryma Christi del Vesuvio from my friends at Bin Ends for about $14.  The wine is about 80% Coda di Volpe and 20% Falanghina.  The vines that the grapes come from are between 15 and 20 years old and are located directly around Vesuvius.  The grapes are hand-sorted and gently pressed prior to undergoing primary fermentation in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation.  The wine is aged in steel on the lees for three months and then aged for one more month in bottle before release.  In the glass, the wine was a pale lemon green color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with ripe pear, lemon cream and apple.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acid.  There were flavors of creamy pear, apple peel, a touch of white peach and a little lemony citrus.  The wine was delicate and subtle with a quiet, chalky kind of minerality on the finish.  It wasn't a particularly complex wine, but it was fresh and clean tasting.  It's a great summertime wine that would be an excellent match with light seafood or chicken dishes.

1 comment:

Do Bianchi said...

Your philological spirit is RIGHT on! Great post!