Georgian wine labels – understanding and pronouncing

Understanding

When trying to understand a Georgian wine label, I would first try to locate any bits of text that refer to region or grape variety. Google could help here if it is not obvious from the context, as would having ready access to lists of regions and varieties, online or hardcopy. Once something is identified, it is be relatively easy to drill down to get more detailed information about it.

If the colour of the wine is described as amber or golden, it is a skin maceration wine made from green grapes – Georgian labels tend to avoid use of the more usual term orange wine. White wine on the other hand would indicate that there has been little or no skin contact (usually at least, but I do know at least one exception).

As Georgia still produces medium dry and medium sweet wines, largely for the Russian market, there is also often a sweetness indication of the label. The reassuring word dry is what you will usually find.

If qvevri is not mentioned somewhere on the bottle, not even the back label, you should probably assume that your wine is made in vat, tank or barrel. And conversely, if it actually is a qvevri wine you will usually be informed. Just note that the use of qvevri does not necessarily imply skin contact, and kvevri with a k is simply another transliteration of the same Georgian word.

Any other text writ large, will probably be the producer’s name or brand. In addition to that, it seems that there is now always a producer name in small letters on the back label, which is usually different from the one on the front of the bottle. Presumably this is the producer’s official company name, or the company that bottled the wine, to allow for traceability.

Pronouncing

Why should you even bother trying to pronounce all the weird words you see on Georgian wine labels? Well, apart from the obvious – that it is the only way you are going to be able to communicate verbally about the wine – I think it represents a big step in familiarising yourself with it. The sound of a word is a lot easier to remember than a vague impression of what the word looks like, which is probably what you have without vocalising it.

My first piece of advice is not to be intimidated. Just take new words one syllable at a time, and one letter at a time. How hard can it be?

It can actually be as hard as you want it to be, but there is no point in aiming for perfection. Indeed, if you are going to be using a Georgian word in a sentence of your native language I am not sure perfection is possible, certainly not without sounding very odd. So I would, for example, not fret about distinguishing between the different Georgian versions of the consonants p, t and k – something you have doubtless been losing sleep over prior to this reassurance.

The other Georgian sounds are a lot more straightforward, and the good news is: that every letter is pronounced; it is always pronounced the same way; and in many cases the transliterated version of Georgian is pronounced similar to English. So then just put a slight stress on the first syllable of each word and you are up and running.

If you wish to improve your pronunciation, I think the Georgian alphabet on this page is a great resource. Column 2 of the table gives you the letters you will see in the Georgian transliterations, and you can click the play-buttons to hear how the letter sounds in words. It is probably worth clicking the vowel buttons right away as there are only a few of them. As for the consonants, note that r is rolled, and kh is a bit like the Spanish j or the Scottish pronunciation of ch in loch. And especially note that gh is more like a French r sound than anything else; don’t ask me why the letter combination gh is used in the standard transliteration. It gets even more confusing when some people decide to omit the h from the transliteration – if you suspect that is the case you simply have to check what Georgian character is being used.

When you come across a consonant combinations that does not exist in your native language, just try to run the consonants together as quickly as possible, without labouring or stressing them. The Georgian combination kv is really no more difficult than the English cl, and there is no need at all to stick in an extra vowel between the k and the v, as the English media insist on doing in the surname of the tennis player Petra Kvitova for example.

If you need any more help with pronunciation, you could try Forvo. Its Georgian vocabulary is quite limited at the moment, but there are some wine-related words. You can enter the transliterated version of the word, or cut and paste the word in the Georgian alphabet – sometimes one method will work better than the other.

Finally, I feel I have to say that I am very aware that some of what I have said here contradicts what other wine people have said and written about how to pronounce Georgian. In particular I differ in saying that Georgian letters are always pronounced the same way, and that none are silent. I do not wish to set myself up as a linguistic authority, but I base what I say on Georgian language tutorials, discussion with a couple of Georgians, and checking native-speaker pronunciations on Forvo and in YouTube videos. So my advice is doubtless not totally fool proof, but in good conscience it is the best I can give.

That said, I will make one concession that sort of runs against my own advice: the initial r in Rkatsiteli does indeed seem to be totally silent when spoken by Georgians in everyday conversation. However, even then, when I questioned a Georgian about this, she insisted that the r was actually there, just difficult to hear – so maybe my advice to pronounce everything should still stand..? Besides, sticking the r in front of that grape variety will give you plenty of  r-rolling practice, and stand you in good stead for other words.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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