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Wine Names as Windows Onto Ancient Cultures

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Before Europeans made their way across the Atlantic, indigenous cultures flourished in what is now the wine country at the foothills of the Andes and in Patagonia. Mass murder, disease, forced migration, and assimilation followed, but many descendants of pre-Columbian civilizations survive (as the map shows) and so do their languages. In recent years, plenty of indigenous words have made their way onto wine labels, and we thought you might like to know what they meant.

The words come from at least half a dozen distinct languages. Up through the 15th century, the Incan empire covered a stretch of territory east of the Andes stretching down into what is now Mendoza. There they interacted with the diaguita Calchaqui groups and helped to spread the Quechua language. They also interacted with the Aymara people, who mainly lived in what is now Bolivia.

Further south, the Huarpe people were widespread in San Juan and Mendoza. And in Patagonia, the Mapuches and their language, Mapudungun, held sway. They ruled over the Ranculches in La Pampa and the Tehuelches in the tip of the Southern Cone.

The languages of all of these peoples have appeared on Argentine wine labels. Even a single word can be evocative of a once vibrant - and sometimes still extant - indigenous culture. Here are some examples:

Amalaya - hope for a miracle, Quechua
Amancaya - lily, Aymara
Amauta - wise man or teacher, Quechua
Antucura - calendar stone, Mapuche
Calcura - altar stone, Mapuche
Chakana - Inca cross or Andean cross, Quechua
Jelu - sun, Huarpe
Kaiken - a place or whereabouts, Tehuelche
Lancatay - foot of the Andes, Huarpe
Limay - clear or reflecting river, Mapuche
Melipal - four stars, Ranculche
Ruca Malen - house of the young girl, Mapuche
Tahuan - four, Quechua
Tahuantinsuyu - union of the four Inca regions, Quechua
Yauquen - sharing, Mapuche

Most of these words have been appropriated by wineries founded by Spanish, Italian, and German immigrants, as well as by more recent arrivals from France and the United States. But there is also a small segment of the industry owned by indigenous people, often making artisanal products like vino patero and mistela or selling grapes and juice to bigger players. For now, the languages of these people are more prominent in the industry than they are. Perhaps one day they, too, will regain the spotlight in the land of their ancestors. Salud!