Correct Wine Pronunciations

As if my Grand Cru article earlier this month didn’t get me enough controversy, I thought I’d dig into this argument as well. I’ve always joked that wine bloggers know everything about wine except how to pronounce it. By that I mean that we read, search for, and type our technical terms or place names in articles but rarely have to actually speak those same terms. I was deservedly chastised by a colleague of mine last summer for pronouncing the Champenois region “Reims” incorrectly (allegedly), sounding it as “Reems”. Apparently this is a common Anglophone way of mispronouncing it, but is incorrect even though an archived CBC radio broadcast announcing VE day pronounced it exactly as I (allegedly) had. Her pronunciation “Roms” seemed odd to me so I consulted the Grand All-Knowing Knower of Everything (aka Google) which lead me to yet another pronunciation which, to English-speakers, makes “Reims” rhyme with “France”. For what it’s worth, another website also supports this same version. I learned that apparently “Reims” rhymes with “France”.

So now I know.

Pronunciation of words in other languages is, I think, part of the reason that wine is considered inaccessible to some people. The cynic in me believes that Chardonnay and Merlot were as popular as they were (or still are) simply because they are easy to pronounce. Growing up as I did in a French-speaking province, words that aren’t in my native tongue (which is English) are not problematic for me nor do they cause me any grief when trying to order a wine in a restaurant. I know from watching people at the tasting that I am part of the minority (ironic really, since that’s what I was in when I lived in Quebec) and that lots of people find these words difficult.

French words in particular are everywhere in wine, mostly because the names of grapes are usually of French origin – common ones like Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. There are more obscure ones like Marichel Foch, Madeline Angevine, and Auxerrois that don’t help either. The Germanic varieties (Gewürztraminer, Ehrenfelser, and Siegerrebe) are tougher at first but easier once you get used to them. There are a lot of those varieties in the Okanagan and it used to be hard to do a wine tour here without seeing at least one, although that is changing.

One of the German varieties in the Okanagan that still poses problems though gets its own heading.

The Special Case of Riesling

One grape variety that I find the most irritating to hear pronounced incorrectly is “Riesling”. So please let me be as subtle as I can folks. It is pronounced

Rees-ling.

Not Righ-sling, it’s Rees-ling. The “ie” vowel combination in German in the middle of a word is always pronounced “ee.” Germans are not known for making up multiple rules or adhering to them willy-nilly the way we do in English. There is only one way to pronounce this grape variety. End of story.

If its confusing to you (the way it was for me) which sounds belong to “ie” and “ei”, I can offer you a good way to remember. Think of Albert Einstein. The “Ei” in Einstein is pronounced “Ine-stine”. That means that the “ie” in Riesling is pronounced “ee.” Otherwise he would have been Albert “EenSteen”. See? Simple.

You’re welcome.

There is also the issue of the “s” which can be softened to a “z” in English but that is also not Germanic. Somehow this doesn’t bother me as much so I’ll let it go. This time. Don’t make me write another article about it though…

Get on with it

“Meritage” (rhymes with “heritage” is another confusing word that seems to stump people now and then. My first winery job was at Blasted Church where I worked in the cellar for a vintage. The wine shop people told me that they would get people at least once  week that would ask for the “Hatfield’s Fusé”. They would pronounce the English word “fuse” as “few-zay”! Why? Who knows.

Maybe it’s a defence against appearing to be dumb that people get irritated with having their pronunciation corrected. Maybe it reminds them of their high school French classes too much? Whatever the reason, I believe that wine is complicated enough with all these interesting words and the best way to learn about it all is through the oral tradition of the wine shop. So take the time to listen as well as taste and smell on your next wine tour.

Cheers from wine country!

~ Luke

4 thoughts on “Correct Wine Pronunciations

  1. Hi Luke,

    Yes, I read it the way you intended: that you were the one being chastised. Unfortunately in my reply above I worded it ambiguously. “Your chastisement” could mean either someone’s chastisement of you, or your chastisement of someone. I should have worded it differently.

    I remain deeply cynical about people adopting local pronunciations when one has already been established in English. I didn’t watch the Olympics, but if they said “Torino” I bet they did so hoping it would sound novel and cool. Adding to the annoyance of people who do this is that they do it arbitrarily. I’m willing to bet that the CBC announcers didn’t bother to say “Italia”.

    Ditto for acquaintances of mine who, in discussions about travel & such, lecture to me about my “mispronunciations” of some specific city, only to continue blabbering away doing exactly what they had just admonished me for. ” …and then I went to Rome, Prague, Lisbon, Paris and blah blah blah.,,” Unless they are going to be consistent, then their admonition is not valid.

    • Good point about consistency for sure. The biggest issue that I see here is that the English speaking world (or more likely, the North American traveler) has always seemed unable to adapt to other languages with the same aplomb that other cultures have had to adapt to English. I have American relatives who are very annoyed at having to speak other languages. “Why can’t you speak English??” It comes down to an ability to communicate effectively. Asking a ticket agent to get on a train to Turin will not get you anywhere but asking for Torino will. Learning the way the other language works will just make communication easier and with less frustration for everyone.

  2. I don’t think your chastisement was at all deserved. “Reems” is an established pronunciation in the English language (Cdn Oxford Dictionary, .oxforddictionaries.com, Wikipedia, and probably myriad other sources). To pronounce it as if one were speaking in French comes across as extremely pretentious. Would your friend also say “Pa-‘ree”? I doubt it.

    • Hi Drew! Thanks for commenting!

      I thought that it might have been a typo and it was, so I changed it. *I* was actually the one being chastised for mispronunciation. It should have reaad, “I was deservedly chastised by a colleague of mine last summer for pronouncing the Champenois region “Reims” incorrectly (allegedly), sounding it as “Reems”.”

      I disagree with you however in the aspect of sounding a foreign word correctly according to the foreign word in question as being pretentious. On the contrary, I believe that it is only polite. When the Olympics were in Torino, Italy, none of the English-speaking broadcasters used the Anglicized name, Turin, for their graphics and programming. Was that pretentious on their part? No, it was being respectful to the host city.

      Front-line wine people hear wacky pronunciations hourly, from “mer-LOT”, “Rise-ling”, and the 8 different ways to say Viognier. I wasn’t expecting a co-worker to even notice my own pronunciation of Reims but it spawned a great discussion. It inspired me to investigate the different ways of saying it and ultimately write this article.

      The opposite of awareness of these kinds of pronunciations is ignorance of the foreign language in question. If you’ve ever watched Wine Library TV and heard the way Gary V massacres wine names and terminology, then you’ll see how frustrating it is. It took me a few episodes before I finally figured out what he meant when he said, “via veens”. (spelled “vieilles vignes”) I believe that most wine people enjoy, and maybe even expect, some linguistic differences although each persons’ comfort level with them may be different.

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