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How Do You Pronounce Foreign Wine Names?

Do you Americanize wine names or use the authentic pronunciation?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 18, 2012 11:00am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

In the past year, I've noticed an odd thing bubble up in pop music: artists talking about drinking wine they know nothing about. It happens in Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids" ("too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce") and in André 3000's guest verse on Rick Ross's "Sixteen" ("we eat until our belly aches and then go and grab the finest wine and drink it like we know which grape and region it came from.")

Maybe two isn't quite an official phenomenon, but it does make a strange blip in an otherwise strong current of wine name-dropping fashionability in pop music (see: Cristal, Santa Margherita, Ace of Spades). The songs involve too many layers of role playing to know how Ocean or André 3000 personally feel about wine, but Ocean—or Ocean's character—got one thing right: Wine names can be maddeningly tricky to pronounce.

Evidence suggests that wineries would do well to not make it any easier: A recent study from Brock University found that people were more likely to pay a higher price for wines with harder-to-pronounce names.

Even though we apparently enjoy paying for the privilege of not being able to pronounce a brand, I have to say that, on the consumer end, having to say an unknown wine name out loud can be a humbling experience. (My colleague Tim Fish wrote an excellent piece on this last year.) Compounding the problem is that what is "correct" to say in the country from which the wine is from may not be the "correct" Americanized version.

This problem is not specific to wine. I grew up in Hawaii, where there's a big Japanese influence, so something like karaoke is pronounced the Japanese way, "kah-rah-oh-kay," with an "r" sound that lands between an "l" and an "r," what the pronunciation guides call a "retroflex flap." When I moved to the mainland I found out that Americans say "care-ee-oh-kee," which I initially found to be kind of hilarious; over time, I just got worn down, and now, at least when I'm on the mainland, I pronounce it that way too.

With wine names that have different Americanized and original pronunciations, I can see the argument for either side, and I'm generally not one to condemn. My No. 1 rule when it comes to wine is "don't make people feel bad." Life is too short.

But when you have to make a choice, I am genuinely curious: Which way do you pronounce wines? The American way, or foreign way? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Context is a factor, obviously, but I usually fall in line with American pronunciations. I've included some examples below and also threw in some American wineries with foreign words in their names. (These aren't dictionary-regulation pronunciations, but rendered as best we can phonetically.)

French Wines that are Sometimes Pronounced the American Way

Bollinger [French: Bohl-ahn-ZHAY, Americanized: BOHL-in-zhur]

Taittinger [French: Tay-tahn-ZHAY, Americanized: TAH-tin-zhur]

Romanée-Conti [French: Ro-mah-NAY Kohn-TEE, Americanized: Ro-mah-KNEE CON-tee]

American Wineries with Foreign Words that are Pronounced the American Way

A.P. Vin [Ay Pee VINN]

Chateau St. Jean [SHA-tow SAYNT GENE]

Chateau Ste. Michelle [SHA-tow SAYNT Mee-SHELL]

Tip: Search wine videos at WineSpectator.com or YouTube if you want guidance for how to pronounce tricky names. You may not find the "correct" pronunciation, but if you copy someone, at least you won't be the only person in history to say it incorrectly.

William Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 18, 2012 2:18pm ET
The easy solution to the pronunciation conundrum on the bubbly that begins with a "B" is to make like a Brit and just call it "Bolly". And that rhymes with "holy".
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 19, 2012 12:42pm ET
If I have the privilege to visit the actual winery I will pronounce the vintner and wine name the way they do. For example, I used to pronounce "Domaine Huet" with a hard "T" (Hew-ETT). Then some afficionado subtly corrected me at a wine dinner by pronouncing it "Hew-A" (silent T). That made sense because an ending "T" is usually silent in French. Then I visited the winery last year and the staff acknowledged that while in the South of France that would be correct, where they were in Alsace you indeed pronounce it with a hard "T" (Hew-ETT). I felt incredibly vindicated. Now I'm just waiting for another dinner with that guy....
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  October 19, 2012 7:02pm ET
Your recounting of the americanization of "karaoke" reminds of the ongoing struggle to get "Meritage" pronounced correctly. When I explain to friends that the word is a hybrid of merit and heritage and therefore rhymes with "heritage" and not "garage" they think I'm nuts.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  October 19, 2012 9:51pm ET

Sorry, but perhaps there is a Domaine Huet in Alsace I am not aware of, but the one most of us are familiar with is in Vouvray, not Alsace! It could very well be the family pronouces the "t" as you say--I had not heard this. But in general, I believe the area in France where consonants are more commmonly pronouced is in the south, especially southeast toward Italy (where consonants are pronounced). For example, the "s" in Gigondas is pronounced.

Craig Cadwallader
Concord, CA —  October 21, 2012 10:17pm ET
I found a website called Forvo.com which has recorded pronunciations of, I think, millions of words and locations etc. in various languages. As I am reading several books about the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions I felt I should learn the correct pronunciations. Even though I don't speak French I was able to order a Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet at RN74 in San Francisco without being embarrassed.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 22, 2012 3:41pm ET
Ooops, my bad Tom. I had Alsace on the brain (Hugel on the palate) but really meant Vouvray. A staff member with years of experience at the domaine clarified/confirmed the pronunciation with the hard "T".

Hooray for the Vouvray!
Go get the Huet!
James Betts
Nevada —  October 22, 2012 5:02pm ET
Context is very important on this issue. When speaking with a sommelier or other industry professional, I will try to use the native pronunciation to the best of my knowledge (occasionally to my own embarrassment). However when speaking to the end consumer, I will lean toward the Americanized pronunciation. We need to make great wines from foreign lands more accessible, and remove the perception of snobery from the wine business. If one is looked upon as an expert in the situation (ex. teaching a class) then the native pronunciation may be more appropriate.
The most important lesson I have learned on this topic - don't correct people who don't want to be corrected.
Michael Bennett
Houston, TX —  October 23, 2012 4:14pm ET
I usually default to American pronunciations unless it just sounds silly.

There are some other examples of words like "meritage" where what seems like an "Americanized"/"Anglicized" pronunciation is actually the correct one -- for example, "claret." My father was once "corrected" by a wine store salesman with "Oh, you mean clare-ray?" I suggested that next time he be sure to correct the guy right back.

Also, a Brit friend once reminded me, Chateau Talbot is so-named because it was once owned by English Earl Sir John Talbot. Nevertheless, I've often heard people refer to it as Chateau "Tal-bow".

Like Craig, I love forvo.com. One of my very favorite websites. Highly recommended.
John Nase
Philly, PA —  October 30, 2012 12:34am ET
Living in a town where most words are slaughtered on a regular basis, its tough to keep my composure. However, I absolutely agree that life is way too short to make anyone feel inferior if you know something they don't. Pronunciation of proper names (and that IS what we are talking about) is simply nothing to criticize anyone over. I should know - my last name is only 4 letters long and I can't tell you how many ways I hear it rattled back at me. Is "Moet" any different?
Mr Howard A Fain
Providence, RI, USA —  October 31, 2012 6:58pm ET
For a number of years now I have thought of suggesting to Wine Spectator that they put in parentheses the phonetic pronunciation of all wines in the Buying Guide. As a matter of fact, I would like to see that done throughout the whole magazine, not just the Buying Guide.
As someone who speaks English only, I would certainly and strongly appreciate the above.
Would it be possible to have Jennifer Fielders pronunciations throughout the magazine?
Salvador Malo
Mexico —  November 7, 2012 8:21pm ET
Difficulties encountered by wine aficionados often have to do with the lack of equivalent sounds in English. Try this: Barbaresco Gaja. In Italian, Gaja sounds like GUY-ah, which is certainly different, but still quite pronouncable in English. But the key difficulty for English speakers is the 'r' sound, which occurs twice in this name, and in Italian is pronounced like Jennifer said, with a 'retroflex flap' (as it is in Spanish, so the same applies to Chilean, Argentinean, and Mexican wines). This is annoying, because it is at the same time rather pedantic and incredibly basic. Any child in Italy or Spain can pronounce the retroflex 'r', yet there is no English equivalent, so even if you get the Gaja word right, you may stumble on Barbaresco. Have you seen the movie Inglorious Basterds[sic]? The film is not merely violent, but also incredibly funny. The best scene is when Brad Pitt, tough cowboy that he portrays, tries to pass for an Italian before a high-ranking Nazi (Chris Waltz), who happens to speak perfect Italian. Pitt gets the grammar right, but the 'r' sounds give him away in a hilarious exchange. Hopefully China won't soon become a major wine exporter, or we might as well just give up and just point to the bottle we want...

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