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.