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 a 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 relatively easy to drill down to get more detailed information about it. (Of course, I am assuming here that your label has words with Latin characters on it. Based on my experience, that will be the case with the vast majority of wines you come across. If not, your job will be a lot harder, and you will need to start with information about the Georgian alphabet.)

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 often indicates that there has been little or no skin contact, though it is also sometimes used for orange wines.

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. Assuming you are living in a country that is part of Georgia’s ex-Soviet export market, the reassuring word dry is what you will usually find. Note also that if there is an appellation name on the bottle, that will also indicate the sweetness level.

Appellations are not used as widely as in EU countries, but some of them seem to be regarded as more worthy of mention on the label than others. It can be confusing because the usage does not seem to be tightly controlled, so a wine might mention somewhere on the label that it comes from a region or village of an appellation, but from the context and small size of the typeface I am almost certain that they are not claiming to belong to the appellation of the same name. Wikipedia has a list of them all, with grape varieties, colour and sweetness levels.

If qvevri is not mentioned somewhere on the bottle, not even the back label, you are normally (again, I have come across a couple of exceptions) safe in assuming 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 significant skin contact even though that is often the case, 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 non-Georgian sentence I am not sure perfection is possible anyway, 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 in many cases the transliterated version of Georgian is pronounced similar to English. Don’t worry too much about which syllables are stressed, as stress is light anyway.

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 gh in 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 combination 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.

If you read an introduction to the Georgian language, you will often be told that its pronunciation is very straightforward: each letter has only one pronunciation, and every letter is pronounced in all words. And all the Georgians I have spoken with agree. However, quite a few wine writers seem to take the view that some letters that are pronounced in different ways, and are occasionally silent. After having struggled to learn Georgian over the last couple of years, and listened to a fair amount of recorded speech, I have to agree with those few wine writers. While I still usually hear two “vs in qvevri, “v” is indeed often pronounced as “u”. Also, the initial “r” in the grape variety Rkatsiteli is most definitely normally silent, as are a fair number of other letters in consonant clusters. Having said that, if you pronounce every letter I don’t think you will get any criticism or correction, and you will stand a better chance of being understood than if you make the wrong letters silent.

Update 25/06/19: Various clarifications and additions.

Update 01/01/20: Modified advice on Georgian pronunciation.

Alsace grape varieties and wine labelling

Here I list the grape varieties in Alsace, and describe how they relate to the names on Alsace wine labels. This is not nearly as easy as you might think when you get into the detail, especially when aiming for strict accuracy whilst still making the information easy to access. Let me start by giving the varieties allowed in the AOCs of Alsace and Crémant d’Alsace.

Grape Varieties
Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose
Sylvaner

In this list I use what I would call a commonly understood definition of grape variety. For example, although Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are clones of Pinot Noir, I treat all three as separate varieties, not least because the AOC regulations do so. Likewise, and for the same reason, I count Gewurztraminer and Savagnin Rose as separate varieties, even if they are both clones of Savagnin. I also list two varieties of Muscat, but here it is because they are in fact different varieties, however much that may sometimes be glossed over. But for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Chasselas I do not separate out their white and pink clones. The AOC regulations do refer to both colours, but each time one is allowed the other is too, so nothing is lost by lumping them together. Besides, I don’t think it is at all usual to separate out the pink clones for these varieties. For more detail, each of these grape varieties has a sizable section in Wine Grapes.  Internet searches will also give plenty of information about them.

Label Text Permitted Grape Varieties
Auxerrois Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gutedel
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer Gewurztraminer
Muscat Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Muscat Ottonel Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot
Klevner
Auxerrois
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Pinot Gris Pinot Gris
Riesling Riesling
Sylvaner Sylvaner
Pinot Noir, red or rosé Pinot Noir
Klevener de Heiligenstein Savagnin Rose
Edelzwicker Auxerrois
Chasselas
Gewurztraminer
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Muscat Ottonel
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Savagnin Rose, only from Heiligenstein area
Sylvaner
Crémant Auxerrois
Chardonnay
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Pinot Noir
Riesling
Crémant, rosé Pinot Noir

The right hand column in the above table is relatively straightforward as I have already explained what I mean by these varieties. Any variety in a list in the right hand column can be used in any proportion.

The left hand column is a bit of a mixed bag. From Auxerrois to Pinot Noir, it contains what the AOC regulations call the dénomination en usage, a sort-of varietal name for the wine. Gutedal is an alternative name for Chasselas, and Klevner for Pinot. More on Klevener de Heiligenstein below. Another denomination en usage is Edelzwicker, which means noble blend even if it is now not required to be particularly noble. Finally we have the two colours of Alsace crémant wines. Except where noted, you should assume that all wines are white.

The main areas of confusion surround the usage of the label terms Pinot Blanc, Pinot, Klevner and Klevener.

Let’s deal with Klevener first. Klevener de Heiligenstein is, as far as the Alsace AOC regulations are concerned, a geographical name that may appear on the label. And like other possible geographical names, in addition to specifying where the vines can be grown it restricts the grape varieties that are allowed in the wine. For Klevener de Heiligenstein it just so happens that only one variety is allowed: Savagnin Rose. And that variety cannot be used with any other additional name on the label apart from Edelzwicker, and in all cases, Savagnin Rose has to come from the area around Heiligenstein. However, to most people, Klevener de Heiligenstein reads like a grape variety: the Klevener variety of Heiligenstein. And indeed, in the book Wine Grapes, Klevener de Heiligenstein is listed as a synonym for Savagnin Rose. So when you see Klevener de Heiligenstein on a wine, feel free to think of it as a form of varietal labelling. Just be careful not to confuse it with Klevner, which has a different spelling, and its own set of complications.

According to the regulations, Klevner is simply an alternative label name for Pinot, and as such it includes a range of grape varieties. But you should also be aware that Clevner and Klävner (also Klevner according to some sources) are used in Alsace as synonyms for the variety Pinot Blanc. So if someone says something that sounds like Klevner, you will need some context to know if they are talking about Savagnin Rose, Pinot Blanc, or a wine that can contain any of several Alsace varieties. If your head is starting to hurt now, do push on – the worst is over.

Normally in the EU, if a wine has a variety mentioned on the label, it must contain at least 85% of that variety. However, according to the Alsace AOC regulations, wines labelled Pinot Blanc can contain large proportions of Auxerrois, and they often do. Apparently (reported by Jancis Robinson on her forum, quoting correspondence from CIVA) this is because in this context Pinot Blanc, contrary to appearance, is not a grape variety but a dénomination en usage, and usage has always been to confuse the varieties Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois. However, this does not work the other way round, so if the label says Auxerrois the wine must be 100% of that variety.

Another fudge, I understand, is that Chardonnay used to be tolerated in Pinot, even if strictly speaking it never was allowed. But no more. It is only permitted in white crémant. Which leads me on to another notable fact about Crémant d’Alsace: rosé crémant must be 100% Pinot Noir. It is not permitted to make rosé by mixing white and red grapes, as it is in Champagne and many other sparkling wine regions.

I am aware that some of what I have written here is in conflict with what I have seen in other places, both online and in print. Some errors my well have slipped into my post (and if they have please let me know) but my sources were the current official regulations. Specifically, the documents I used were:

CAHIER DES CHARGES DE L’APPELLATION D’ORIGINE CONTRÔLEE « ALSACE » ou « VIN D’ALSACE » homologue par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, modifié par le décret n° 2014-1069 du 19 septembre 2014, publié au JORF du 21 septembre 2014

Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée « Crémant d’Alsace » homologué par le décret n° 2011-1373 du 25 octobre 2011, JORF du 28 octobre 2011

What’s wrong with German wine labelling

Many people complain about German wine classification being too complicated, placing too much emphasis on must weight as an indicator of quality, and confusing punters with the introduction of inferior bereiche and grosslagen with misleading names.

To me the text on a traditional label for a prädikatswein is a model of clarity.  Here’s one I’ve been drinking a lot of recently: 2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett.  The information traditionally comes in the same order

  1. Vintage (2000)
  2. Village (Brauneberg)
  3. Vineyard (Juffer)
  4. Grape variety (Riesling)
  5. Prädikat (Kabinett)

Somewhere on the label there will also be the region, in this case Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which gives some indication of the style to expect, and of course the producer – here it is Weingut Fritz Becker Erben.

If a German wine is dry or medium dry, the label will usually indicate this with the EU defined words trocken or halbtrocken respectively.  Though you may also find the word feinherb used, which is not controlled by the EU, but roughly means the same as halbtrocken.  Otherwise you can pretty safely assume the wine will be sweet, with the prädikat giving some indication of the level of sweetness.  And finally, as a special treat for wine geeks, there will be an ID unique to the particular bottling.  My wine is AP Nr 2 577 015 5 01.

So what is the problem? You have all the key information.   French labels are sometimes criticised for omitting the grape variety and level of sweetness, but that is rarely an issue with German wines.

I suppose having a smattering of German helps a lot.  For example you need to realise that Brauneberger means “from Brauneberg”, and you sometimes also see something like 2000er, meaning “of the 2000 vintage”.  And some of the vineyard names are awfully long and complicated looking.  But they are just names – take them one syllable at a time.  It may well be my geeky scientific mentality coming through, but I really like the orderliness of German labels.  It reflects the strict word order rules in German grammar.

Of course, if you do treat the prädikat as a mark of quality, you are likely to come a cropper at some point or other.  As with all wines, the best indicators of quality are vineyard and producer, and you have that information too.  I simply take the prädikat as an indicator of style.  As such, perhaps it would be useful if there were maximum as well as minimum must sugar levels specified for each one, but even so it provides useful information.

On the issue of grosslagen, as I see it they should be treated like the any other specified vineyard.  Some vineyards are better than others and of course you have to know which are the good and bad ones to make sense of the information.  There’s Google, and plenty of references books, to help you out. And of course price is also usually a pretty good indicator.  If you see a cheap wine with Niersteiner on the bottle, do you really expect it to be from one of Nierstein’s top vineyards?   In that sense it is no better or worse than Burgundy.  The most serious charge against bereiche and grosslagen is that they allow a respectable village name to be applied to vines that may be grown beyond the limits of the village.  Again, I am reminded of Burgundy.  No one seems to get upset, for example, about the name of Beaune being applied to wines from a number of different villages in the southern part of the Côte d’Or.  Not to mention the way several villages on the Côte d’Or managed to acquire the names of their finest vineyard leading to, for example, the name Montrachet featuring in the appellations of village level wines from two different villages.

So as you can perhaps now guess, I don’t think there is a lot wrong with German wine labelling.

Or at least there wasn’t.  But I find the more recent attempts to give recognition to good quality dry wines unhelpful.  How many people really understand what a Grosses Gewächs is?  And if they do, could they explain how it differs from Erstes Gewächs and Erste Lage?  I have just read an article on the subject in The World of Fine Wine and I’m damned if I can without referring back to the article.  There is also a modern trend to simplify labels by omitting information, or using a simplified front label and relegating detail to the back of the bottle.  I also find this unhelpful, as removing context makes it more difficult to work out what the remaining words refer to.  Is that word the village or the vineyard?  Or maybe it is simply a made up brand name?

Anyway, what about this  2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett from Weingut Fritz Becker Erben?  This year I bought a case of it from Cambridge Wine Merchants for the princely sum of £6.50 a bottle, and I am currently in the process of trying to clear them out of their last remaining bottles, but they may have a few left by the time you read this.  £6.50 for a 10 year old wine!  I believe there is some bottle variation, the less good bottles being less intense and a bit tired, but the better ones are beautiful.  A light crisp wine, with apple and lime aromas, a fair whack of petrol, and sweetness in excellent balance with the acidity.  Not a great wine by any means, but very enjoyable if you like that sort of thing.  Some bottles maybe should have been drunk a few years ago, but the better ones are in my opinion spot on now and just about merit ****.