15 March 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


“In the past, aligoté was planted at the top of Chambertin! Musigny blanc was half aligoté! It was half of Corton! After phylloxera, most replanted with easier-to-grow chardonnay and put aligoté on the other side of the road where no one ever planted anything but carrots and potatoes. This was the sad story of ruined aligoté.”
LAURENT PONSOT, to Alice Feiring *

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Alice et olivier de moor

17 February 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Before we leave the Yonne entirely, let’s abandon Chablis’ classified vineyards & go a little further afield, to a couple making wines close to my heart and worth special consideration: Alice and Olivier De Moor.


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Chablis, or deadwood

21 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: Hatzidakis. Huet. J.B. Becker & Eva Fricke. Prévost, and Chartogne-Taillet. Lelarge-Pugeot, Brochet, Agrapart, Ulysses Collin, and others. More general stuff about barbarians, sugar, and coats-of-arms. A now-outdated introduction. Revisions.]


Let’s talk chardonnay for a second. Still known occasionally in Chablis by one of its many aliases, beaunois (‘from Beaune’), the white grape of the region didn’t start going by its modern spelling until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the name (original 17th century spelling: chardonnet) had converged with the village of Chardonnay down in southern Burgundy, in the Mâconnais. It may or may not actually have originated around there, but soundalikes have their own power. The village’s name comes from the vegetation: thistles (Latin carduus, Old French chardon). Chardonnet is also Old French for goldfinch, “a bird that haunts the thistle,” known also in German literally as the “thistle-finch,” or distelfink.

So, chardonnay: “vine from the thistle-covered place.”

Chablis is in the French départment of the Yonne (Celtic Icauna), name of both the river and the river-as-goddess. (See Celts, conflation of water source & fountains & divinity.) The appellation’s PR website says the root of Chablis is Celtic, cab (house) + leya (near the woods), which is certainly possible, since the village’s 9th-century name was Capleia. On the other hand, “chablis” literally means something like deadwood, or, as the Institut Géographique National’s Noms de Lieux en France: Glossarie de Termes Dialectaux puts it, the—I’m roughly translating—”pile formed by uprooted tree trunks that have lost their value as merchandise.” Maybe somebody decided “dead trees” wasn’t sexy enough for a consumer-facing website.

You could argue Chablis needed the help. Something like 40,000 hectares under vine in the Yonne at the height of the 19th century, but you know the price of international commerce. Epidemics hit across the highly-developed globalized wine world, first powdery mildew, which could have been worse, and then the louse phylloxera, the devastator, which was. If that weren’t bad enough, two world wars where you were close enough to the front lines to be a target of artillery bombardment and then a crazy devastating frost in 1945 pretty much sealed the deal. From 40,000 hectares of a century earlier you were down to less than five hundred under vine. Winters were cold. Citizens went skiing down the vine-denuded slope of the grand cru vineyard over the town in 1956, which must have felt like the fun side to the apocalypse, and the next year was so fucked with frost nobody made any wine at all.

Today there’s a lot more stuff planted, about 5,000 hectares of it, and Chablis has clawed its way back to commercial respectability and brand name recognition (“I hate chardonnay, but I love Chablis!”), but the farming’s still pretty shitty taken as a whole: high yields, 95% machine-harvested, dead soils, and a third of the entire region’s production is controlled by a local co-op. An old sommelier truism, you’ll find more dynamism and value in Muscadet these days. Still, if you know where to look, there’s always people doing the work, and I’ll wind down the sermon now, since, I don’t know if you remember anymore, but the only point of this was supposed to be literally translating a wine list, and the last thing I want to do is start an argument about wine qua wine when etymologists will already have enough to take issue with. (Cue up a bunch of old-school sommeliers trying to sell me on the merits of La Chablisienne.) Anyway: deadwood indeed.

There aren’t many regions better than Chablis for illustrating Burgundy-style vineyard hierarchy in the cleanest possible way, though. It’s so far north, and ripeness so hard to come by; it’s almost too cute. All of the grand cru vineyards are on one maximum-exposure southwest facing slope looking down at the river Serein (“unclouded,” “calm,” “tranquil”). Why are they grand cru? They’re the ripest. The premier cru vineyards radiate out on either side of the grand cru slope, like wings, and across the river along long, southeast-facing side valleys, and why are they premier cru? They get pretty ripe, riper than those poor village plots, but not quite as ripe as the grands. Everything comes down to sunlight. The whole picture is kind of shaped like a ghost orchid.

These days, after some fiddling over the years (in 1967 a list of twenty-six named places was reduced to eleven official premier crus; in 1986 the official list was extended to include seven other sites, some of which have their own Russian doll–nested named places inside of them), there are forty lieux dit (“named places”) inside seventeen commonly-used vineyard names rated premier cru (“first-class vineyard”). A nice manageable chunk of names for all of those aspirational Advanced-level chasing sommeliers to work on. There’s dozens of twentysomething wine professionals kicking around Manhattan that would love to recite the seven grand crus of Chablis to you in order, top to bottom, right after the ten cru villages of Beaujolais.

chablis map

So here we are: Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Les Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, and Blanchot. I’m going mostly by the work that a Chablisienne winegrower named Jean-Paul Droin did for the website their PR company put together.

Bougros (once Boguereau/Boquereau, Latin bucca, Old French bouque—narrow passage, canal or strait, eventually “mouth”) would be narrow passage by the water, the path along the often-flooded river from Chablis to the village of Maligny (which, sidebar, was once a leper colony).

Les Preuses may take its name from this same river-chasing Roman road, later known as  La Voie Pierreuse: the stony path. Valmur (Vallemeur) is either a valley of walls (meurs) or wild blackberries (meures). Blanchot, as in a pale, ashen expression, or blanched asparagus, refers to color of the plot’s whitish limestone soils. (French blanc, Germanic blank.)

Les Grenouilles is the fun one everyone knows, literally “frogs,” probably because it’s lower down by the marshy riverbank, the ‘g’ an onomatapeic addition (to Latin ranunculus, Old French renouille) for a little extra oomph. The croaking-place.

Vaudésir is a little bit of a roller coaster, strap in! It scans at first glance as valley of wishes (désir=desire, hope, wish), but it’s just as likely to be the Val Desay, belonging to a gentleman of that name. Desay could be a person from Sai (Orne), or Say (Indre), or Saix (Isère), which might be from the Gallic personal name Saius, or the Old French “rock” (saix). The French locational surname came into English (Say, Sey, Sei), probably with the Norman Conquest, and became synonymous in that country with a maker or dealer in an eponymous type of finely-textured cloth (‘say’), although it also might also denote a man who always went around wearing a “military cloak” (sale, sagum). And, indeed, there were winegrowers in Chablis in the middle ages named Desay. But all of this is so tortuous, and with so little payoff, I’ve got to tell you it’s pretty tempting just to let Vaudésir have it: valley of hopes.

 Les Clos, as with any other clos, is an easy-peasy reference to a vineyard enclosed (or once enclosed) by stone walls. An old law, or maybe an old sommelier’s tale, since I can’t find any primary evidence, defines the walls that qualify for a clos: high enough that a horse with a rider cannot jump over them.

As in many Burgundy vineyard names, the premier crus are comments about the quality of the land (“Beauroy,” from clymat de beau rouard, good vines belonging to Rouard; “Beauregards,” for the nice view from the top), or its shape (“Vaillons,” little valley; “Montmains,” the hill between); or the vegetation cleared to plant the vines (“Les Epinottes,” thorn-bushes; “Forêts,” forest; “Roncières,” brambles; “Sécher,” cut down”). Although in Sancerre “butteaux” is the alluvial land by the river, in Chablis, the vineyard formerly spelled butiau might refer to tree-stumps (but) or a hilltop (butte).

And everybody spells everything a little differently, and the differences are perfectly legal on the labels, so words might be single or plural, there might be a “Les” or not, “Forêts” could be “Forest,” “Sécher” could be “Sechet.”

And of course, yes, I haven’t forgotten about you, Thunder Mountain, or that the more accurate guise of Montée de Tonnere is something like, “Path Rising to the Place of Thundering Water.”

So who’s on the list for us to drink?

Raveneau, and Vincent Dauvissat, obviously, the canonized twin poles —Raveneau, which trusty French internet says is a nickname (“the black radish!”) for a grower & seller of radishes, and Dauvissat, another tedious locational surname, “from Vissac,” a hamlet in the Haut-Loire so small it’s no longer administratively independent, older recorded name Vissât, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the third-person singular imperfect subjunctive of the verb “to screw,” oldest recorded names something around Visolie / Vésolle / Vissa.

My longshot dim-bulb guess comes from a Languedoc dialect name, vis, for white mistletoe (Old French wîhsila), which, if you remember your Pliny’s Natural History was venerated by Gallic Druids who cut it from sacred oaks with golden sickles (Sophocles named the oak ixophoros, “mistletoe-bearing,” although the parasite also has a fondness for apple trees). “The only tree that leafs freshly in wintry weather” (Virgil, among others), its green in the midst of snow symbolic of eternal life, it was regarded as universal healer, counter to any poison, cure for sterility. Anyway, not totally ridiculous to me that this tiny village to the south, on the edge of forest, could be one trace of erased and long-buried sacred groves, tree-cults, and, originally, before a white bull took their place, ritual sacrifice of sacred kings pierced by spears of mistletoe wood…

Dauvissat has a son-in-law, Laurent Tribut (Latin tributum), an old Roman occupation you can translate along lines bureaucratic (“tax collector”), fantastical (“the one who takes tribute”), or Beatlesque (“taxman”).

Who else? Thomas Pico, whose last name might be Italian, Galician, Portuguese, or Spanish, and which might refer to someone with a pointed nose (pico, “beak”), or who lived by a mountain (pico, “peak”), or had a thick upper lip (Catalan, picó), or was a woodpecker (Italian, pico). He makes wine under the name Pattes Loup, “wolf paws.”

Gérard Duplessis (it’s son Lilian in charge now), from plessis, which in Berry, Poitou, Saintonge or Venômois was a house enclosed by a hedge of interlaced branches.

The formidable Athénaïs de Béru, who is from exactly where it sounds like she’s from: Béru, in the Yonne, where a walled vineyard bearing that name is attested since the 13th century, when it was called “Bru.” The short names are always the hardest, but it’s probably either brunn (Germanic: fountain, well, water-source) or one of the innumerable French place-names from bruyères, heather. (Issac Taylor counts over 200 in his Names and Their Histories, and the Glossarie de Termes Dialectaux lists almost as many regional dialect variants: bruelle, bruère, bruc, brouc, brug, brujobron, bronde, bronz, brossa…).

I’m running with the latter, because heaths are heaths and not forests because of acidic soils, which means limestone, which is all over the shop north of the Massif Central and, especially—you guessed it!—Chablis, home to a strata of clay & limestone rich in spiral-shelled ammonite fossils from the upper Jurassic that is probably the one geological era your average sommelier can name, the Kimmeridgean, for a town, Kimmeridge, in Dorset, overlooking the white cliffs of Dover, once the bottom of an ancient sea.

What’s kind of nice is that even the language ends up coming back around to the soil beneath the vine.




[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Taking another crack at Benoit Courault’s chenin in Anjou, since I was never really happy with it the first time. (The translating, not the drinking. Very happy with the drinking.) Courault, origin name for “from Courand,” in Allier, I couldn’t quite hack with  the resources at my disposal, so I resorted to shitty workarounds: “From the Land that Gives Us Kings,” for the Duchy of Bourbon’s roots in Allier, and then “From the Territory of the God of Hot Springs,” since that’s the root of Bourbon (Brovo, the Celtic deity, from *brovo, “froth, foam.” There’s a whole Celtic thing of fountains and divinity being synonymous, with the roots for springs & gushing forth & water from rock and the roots for gods & creation kind of becoming the same, and also, concurrently, deified rivers, sacred springs…)

This morning I made the mistake of coming across someone who knows what they’re doing, a French Ph.D candidate in cognitive semantics with a specialty, basically, in Celtic words relating to time and place and seasons. In the blog post above, part of his brother-in-law’s website about very, very long hiking trips, he casually works through a whole list of Loire Valley placenames that his brother-in-law is walking through, like so:

14/05/13 Aurec Auriaco en 1030. Idem Blanzac pour –(i)aco. Soit nom de personne Aurius, soit gaulois auaria (attesté dans Avaricum, Aveyron, Avière, Yèvre). La racine au-,av- (=> breton aven) désigne divers « courant d’eau ». Il n’est pas exclu que Avara ait été divinisée, comme de nombreux noms de rivières celtiques. Soit pour Aurec : simplement le « lieu où coule une rivière » ou « lieu dédié à la déesse des rivières Avara » ?

It’s in French, but still a neat read even machine-translated if you’d like (note: there’s a whole thing about deified Celtic rivers in that excerpt! I’m not making this shit up!), and a reminder that it’d be nice if I got my hands on references like Stéphane Gendron’s 2008 L’origine des noms de lieux en France, or Pierre-Henri Billy’s 2011 Dictionnaire des noms de lieux de la France. (He leaves a bibliography. I weep, weep for my shitty internet scholarship.)

Anyway it’s a good reminder to keep trying. So let’s take another look at Courand (currently spelled Courant, apparently). Up there, a toponymy for the (different place) Cours-sur-Loire: “de l’ancien français curtis, latin cortem qui ont donné « cour » de basse-cour. C’est un nom de la ferme, établissement agricole.” If I squint halfway this sounds a lot better for Ben’s family name of origin: from a village derived from the old French curtis, Latin cortem, so the heart (courtyard) of a barnyard or stable. Pretty fitting for a guy who lives in the middle of his vines. Courant / courand also has a bunch of senses along the lines of “little stream,” “canal,” and, in one of the toponymic dictionaries I have “canal connecting two ponds, or one pond to the sea.” Now, we’re not really close to the sea down here in Courant (which isn’t even where Ben lives or makes wine, that would be Faye d’Anjou, one of many tree-name towns, from Latin fagea, “beeches”— and here’s some great machine-translated French wikipedia for you, “Part of church property in Faye are insane at the time of religious wars”), and we’re not even that close to a river. But little stream or canal, sure. Maybe I should just go with what’s staring me in the face rather than reaching.

It’d sure be nice if I had literalizations for his cuvées, though. He makes a bunch of different wines.

“Petit Chemin,” his little entry-level chenin, that one’s easy: a pun, somewhere between “narrow path” and “little chenin.” One year it was sparkling. His top white, his only single plot, a half-hectare called “Guinechiens,” is a perplexing word. There’s…”dogs” in there? It kind of sounds like “guinea hen”? (It’s not, guinea hen in French is apparently pintade.)

His reds are “Tabeneaux” (no idea) and “Rouliers” (cart driver?). A delightful little grolleau, “La Coulée,” is a word that gets used for a lot of different geological formations in different francophone places. It carries in French the senses of molten metal being poured into a mold, and the molten metal itself; a corridor or path worn by game through the forest; a lava flow; a mudslide; any slippery, flowing mass. It can be declivities worn by the action of water.  In Louisiana it’s a dry gully that runs flush in a rainstorm, or a stream smaller than a bayou. It can refer to glacial morraines in eastern Washington, or small, steep-sided valleys in Wisconsin. It’s hard to tell here whether Ben’s bottling is a reference to the land or more fanciful allusion.

And I still don’t know what Gilbourg means, but it’s got to be something about either a hill or a town. Just have to keep trying. Does the NYPL have a reading room for this sort of thing?

Maybe I should go back to school.


[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A few words on how to translate the grades of sweetness, which can be the sweetness of grape juice sugars left unfermented in wine, fermentation having stopped naturally; or the sweetness of sugars unfermented that stay that way because of temperature control and a sterile filter; or the addition of sterile-filtered unfermented grape juice to reach a certain level of sweetness (called Süssreserve, sweet reserve, in Germany, where it is legal & practiced in a surprising amount of respectable rieslings); or (as in champagne) the mixture of cane sugar or grape juice concentrate and finished wine added to disgorged sparkling wine just before bottling, where this mixture is called the liqueur d’expeditionthe finishing liquid, and the practice dosage, dosing.

In many of these cases, style, traditional practice, and law dictate how you label the resulting level of sweetness, which depending on acidity and other things may not taste very sweet at all. In others, though, such as the sneaky few grams of sugar left in big, modernist, high-alcohol reds for mouthfeel, or basically any table white wine in Alsace, you won’t know until you drink it, and maybe not even then.

What is “dry” wine? Almost all of them. Sweet wines used to be rarities, prized, reserved for popes and emperors. Then refined sugar became widely available, temperature control & filtration made cheap sweet wine on an industrial scale possible, and somewhere along the way “dry” acquired its current cultural connotation of prestige, seriousness, etc, so that the first and most useless question inevitably asked of a list of (uniformly dry) red or white wines is “Which is the driest?”

By the time it says dry on the label, though, sugar is often in actually in play, whether French sec (Vouvray allows up to 8 grams, as long as your acid is high enough) or German trocken (usually up to nine). Sec champagne (which gave the Germans Sekt, their generic word for sparkling wine) is not very dry at all, although it does reflect the fashionable norm of a century or so ago. To go drier than the 17 to 35 added grams per liter of sugar that sec means for champagne a new category, bruthad to be conjured up, with its connotations of savage or brutish; gross, as opposed to net; and raw or unfashioned, as in raw ore or wool, unplaned timber, unpolished gemstones, and unvarnished opinions.

Brut, ironically, still means that sugar has been added, so the new generation of untouched sparkling wines from Champagne needed to go even further in labeling: extra-brut, brut nature, or brut zero (more than raw, naturally raw, and the awkward raw plus nothing). A bottle might say non-dosé, undosed.

Meanwhile, alongside your dry chenins from Vouvray you’ll find demi-sec, or half-dry, which has something in common with the synonymous German halbtrocken (now practically extinct), or the slightly more common and melancholic feinherb, bittersweet.*

*See Stephen Bauer on Lars Carlberg’s Mosel wine site for more on that from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, if you’d like.

Some of the sweetest wines in France will bear the designation moelleux, from the low Latin medullosus, filled with marrow, with its senses, per Larousse, soft and elastic, as for a carpet or a pillow; tender, as in meat, or tone of voice; sweet and velvety to the taste, ear, or sight, as for example a soft chocolate, a babbling brook, or a fine drapery; in literature, who is graceful, flexible, soft and round, curvy, sensual.

A lot of label designations that suggest sweetness, but don’t necessarily require it, refer to time of harvest, or its conditions, such as whether you’ve waited late in the season for the grapes to begin to raisinate on the vine, or for their water to be sucked from them by a fungal rot, or for a cold snap around the winter solstice to freeze them overnight. You might dry the grapes on wooden racks or straw mats to concentrate the sugars, as the ancients did in Roman Italy, Spain, and Greece, and name the wines, dry or sweet, raisined, straw, holy, or forced.

(The Italians have an intricate and incoherent regional profusion of sweet wines, all of which have names, and we’ll talk about them some other time.)

In Hungary, the sweetness levels of Tokaj, puttanyos, are an old measure of the number of 25-kilo baskets, puttony, of boytrytized grapes dumped into a wine barrel.

The Germans are obsessed with the specific gravity of grape juice as a measure of quality, with a tiered system they railroaded into law in 1971. The entry-level, confusingly, appropriates the word, kabinett, for what used to be the highest quality wines in the old days: wines saved for the cabinet. Afterwards: spätlese, late harvest, (the French literal equivalent, Vendages Tardiveswill be much sweeter), and auslese (selected harvest), refering to a process of selection which you also might see referenced in French as a trie, a sweep or pass through the vineyard. And with that we’re well into dessert wine territory. Spätlesen, even auslesen, may be either dry or sweet; the  guarantee do you have when a producer puts it on the bottle is that no cane sugar was added during fermentation to prolong it and raise the alcohol content (a process named, in France, after the chemist Chaptal who invented the procedure, and in German, Trockenzuckerung, dry sugaring). 

In the Austrian Wachau, they classify sugar ripeness along the same lines as the Germans, but in their own allusive code: the lighest Steinfeders, named for the Steinfeder-gras growing near the vines, scientific name Stipa pennata, common name feather-grass (and, in Hungarian, orphan maidenhair); Federspiel, a falconer’s glove, and the taming method in the falconry beloved by local nobility known as the feather-game; and the ripest Smaragdmeaning literally an emerald, and by extension the small, emerald-colored lizards basking in the sun of the Wachau’s terraced vineyards.

Venture deep enough into the American heartland and you’ll see a proliferation of back-label sweetness bars on table wines, dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Your sommelier’s earnest protestations to the contrary (“There’s no such thing as a red that isn’t dry!”), you’ll see $8 to $14 supermarket retail bottles, some of them regional wines, like the 12.5% alcohol “Grand Traverse Select,” a “sweet, 100% vinifera red wine grape blend” from northern Michigan. You’ll see reds from Yellowtail in Australia, which tend to end up at around 10 grams of sugar after grape concentrate has been added.  You’ll see, everywhere, Gallo’s immensely popular Apothic red blend, described by the UK wine critic and Master of Wine Tim Atkin as “undrinkable,” and by its own sales reps in the mid-aughts as a “Menage-Killer,” with its 16+ grams of sugar and total lack of transparency as to additives or sourcing, and your attempts to find out anything useful about this high-volume national brand will instead be met by pages upon pages of wine review blogs written by people subsisting on samples sent by PR flacks, all posted sometime around fall 2012, which must have been around the time Gallo started its charm offensive, most of them quoting or paraphrasing the same press release language and back label copy, which includes the comically arch claim that the brand is inspired by “a mysterious place where wine was blended in 13th century Europe.”

Nothing there fun to translate, though.





Even more champagne

1 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve been awake since a decent hour of the morning looking up French village names, so sure! Let’s drink more champagne. It wasn’t so long ago I was too. (And I got to have a glass of Prévost last night. That was nice.)

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Alta allela (cava)

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

This one’s going to be a quick note about a small victory: in this case, an organic cava producer called Alta Alella. Good wines, coming, as most cava does, from Catalunya. They’re close to Barcelona, between the towns of Tiana and Alella, hence the name: Above Alella.

But where does Allela’s name come from? Time for a trip to Catalán wikipedia!

Documented for the first time in 975 AD in a contract for the sale of land “marking the limits of the west”, a nice machine-translated turn of phrase, then two decades later there’s a saint named Feliu from there mentioned during a land swap, something something marriage something something monastary. Eventually purchased by the monarchy and a royal town (“royal” here meaning Kings of Aragon, who were also the Counts of Barcelona) for a long while thereafter.

Fine fine. Nothing terribly useful so far. But wait: here’s the coat of arms! And here I learned something I didn’t know, I don’t think, which is that coats of arms often sounded out the names of the places or people they represented, which makes sense in a preliterate society. These are called in French & Spanish armas parlantes, armes parlantes, speaking arms, and in English, canting arms, which is to say singing arms, from Anglo-Norman canteventually from Latin cantare), which I think is kind of lovely. Go back far enough and these are often thousand year-old clues in heraldry to shifts in dialect, pronunciation, accent.

The town of Alella is carried into battle (or, today, marked on taxis) by the sign of a—oh ok, I’ll let them say it:

«Escut caironat: d’atzur, mig vol abaixat contornat d’argent; la filiera d’argent. Per timbre una corona mural de poble.»

That’s the language from the most recent municipal ordinance in May 2001, but the important thing is the wing, ala, silver & lowered in midflight (medio vuelo bajado, mig vol abaixat), from whence Alella, more or less. The town of the silver wing lowered in midflight.

The Alta Alella bottling on the list, “Bruant”, is a general French (Catalán too?) word for any bird of the passerine family, the same way we’d say songbird.

Cava, by the way, is what happened when the Spanish were forced by the French in 1972 to give up calling their century-old tradition of champagne-method sparkling wines “Champañas.” Vino de cava, the newly-invented legal term of art, referred to the caves (cavas) in which the bottles slumber during secondary fermentation & aging.