Apple image by Abhijit Tembhekar from Mumbai, India, source: Wikipedia.
"Sops-in-wine," I was told. Oddly, I had just read that very name in American Household Botany, a useful compendium of botanica I'm currently reading. But the name, sometimes known as "Sops-of-wine," was not applied (in the book) to heirloom apples. Off we go then!
What are sops? The noun, we understand, refers to "a piece of food dipped or steeped in a liquid," from the Middle English, soppe, and allied to, of all things, sopaipillas, which derived from sopa, or food soaked in milk, apparently of Germanic origin. About the only use of the word I can think of nowadays is in the adjective form, sopping wet. (Except for a friend of mine, whose 17 years in old Mexico taught her to make a mouth-watering sops of bread in red chile sauce.)
Sops of Wine is described by Big Horse Creek Farms as an "excellent early summer apple which grows well in all regions of the South. Its exact origins are unclear, but Beach (1905) says it is an ancient English culinary and cider apple. Fruit medium to large, slightly conical, with greenish-yellow skin covered with dark red faint red striping. Flesh is yellow and often stained with pink"—just as if it had been sopped, or soaked, in wine. Whether it actually was ever sopped in wine is, I suppose, another story.
Another plant truly was sopped in wine: the Clove Gillyflower, to which the name "sops in/of wine" is also applied. We've all seen these flowers, we just know them by another name: Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus and others). John Parkinson described “gilloflowers” in 1629, in his “Paradisus Terrestris.” He notes:
To avoid confusion, I must divide Gilloflowers from Pinkes and intreats of them in several chapters, of those that are called Carnations or Gilloflowers as of the greater kinds in this Chapter; and of the Pinkes as well double as single, in the next. But the number is so great that to give several descriptions to them all were endlesse… I account those that are called Carnations to be the greatest, both for leafe and flower, and Gilloflowers for the most part to bee lesser in both…”
Parkinson thereafter names some nineteen types of Carnations and 29 of Gillyflowers, not including the small wild gillyflowers he calls “Pinkes.”
Dianthus, literally from the Greek, means “divine flower” (dios plus anthos). It is in the family Caryo-phyllaceae, and the specific epithet of Gillyflowers, D. caryophyllus, adopts the family name. The carnation is also linked to cloves, and was once called “clove pink” for its scent and frequent use as a substitute for the expensive imported spice.
The clove tree, dried buds of which are the familiar spice, was Caryophyllus aromaticus L. (caryo meaning nut, and phyllus, of course, leaf). (It is not, however, in the Caryophyllaceae, but in the Myrtaceae, where it is now known as Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & L.M.Perry. Go figure.)
The English name Carnation is often thought to be derived from the Latin for flesh, as in carnal or carnage, which many of us associate with the color red. In fact, according to Webster’s, the carnation was originally “flesh-colored but now found in many color variations.” An old alternative, dating to the 16th century, connects the word to “Coronation,” in reference both to its common use in “weaving crowns or chaplets for the head, or as Lyte has it, from the flowers dented or toothed above—like to a littell crownet.”
Whence "gillyflower"? Wikipedia suggests this one is a corruption of the French giroflée, which translates the original Greek karyophyllon. Which puts us back to cloves again.
Should you not wish to adulterate good wine by soaking carnations in it, this same Wikipedia article offers a recipe for making wine using only gillyflowers, if you happen to have a peck of them on hand.
An old recipe for gilliflower wine is mentioned in Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern dated to 1753:
“To 3 gallons water put 6lbs of the best powder sugar; boil together for the space of 1/2 an hour; keep skimming; let it stand to cool. Beet up 3 ounces of syrup of betony, with a large spoonful of ale yeast, put into liquor & brew it well; put a peck of gilliflowers free of stalks; let work fore 3 days covered with a cloth; strain & cask for 3-4 weeks, then bottle."
These days, it's a challenge to find carnations that smell like cloves or anything else. I suspect our modern "gillyflowers" would not make a very fragrant wine. Maybe the apples would work instead!
A Sales Manual on Colorado Carnations, by the Colorado Flower Growers Association, Inc. circa 1960s (includes an extensive history chapter on this flower, quoted above; online at Colorado State University).
Cloves, Picotees, and Sops in Wine, a nice essay on Cottage Gardening by Barbara M. Martin.
American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900, by Judith Sumner. 2004. Timber Press, Portland and Cambridge. 396 pages.