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Jefford on Monday: Wine's Periodic Table

Much playtime at the recent EWBC conference in Turkey was spent in competitive pronunciation. All of the non-Turkish speakers, in particular, attempted to outdo each other in declaiming “Öküzgözü” and “Boğazkere”, two of the three outstanding indigenous red-grape varieties we all discovered over there.

Periodic table of wine

Few, in truth, succeeded (the ever-mellifluous Charles Metcalfe came closest, but then he grew up wrapping his tongue around Schubert lieder). Should this ever become an Olympic sport, among the other varieties we’ll need to train with will include the Hungarian Cserszegi Fűszeres, Királyeányka or Zalagyöngye, the Romanian Fetească Regală or Zghihară de Huşi, Portugal’s Donzelinho or Fernão Pires, Greece’s Xynomavro or Agiorgitiko, Catalonia’s Xarello, Italy’s Sciascinoso and Georgia’s Mtsvane Kakhuri.

Actually this is no laughing matter. Whenever consumers are surveyed about purchasing cues, varieties slug it out with promotional offer, colour and brand for top slot. At least half of the varieties I have listed above have fine quality potential – yet printing the variety’s name on the label would prove powerfully dissuasive to browsing shoppers. The chance of ‘ordinary’ drinkers outside the relevant language group cheerfully requesting a wine by use of that variety name is zero. These varieties set off into the world hamstrung by nomenclature.

Pronunciation difficulties, moreover, may not only eliminate consumer access to beautiful wines, but they may even hold terroir evolution in check. Fetească Regală could be the perfect variety for certain distinguished white-wine sites in Washington State; Xynomavro might be what the more calcareous sectors of McLaren Vale have been waiting for.  With names like those, though, we will never know. No one will ever plant a variety with an un-sellably difficult name.

This problem extends well beyond varietal difficulties. Having spent a certain amount of time standing in Australian bottle shops and talking to Aussie wine drinkers in 2009 and 2010, it became obvious to me that many Australian wine drinkers avoided buying European wines for no other reason than that they deeply disliked trying to pronounce any non-English names at all, for fear of getting them wrong and sounding daft. This, too, is a major factor in the success of wines produced in anglophone countries in the UK market, and probably the US market, too. The pronunciation of New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region will challenge any non-English speaker; Burgundian names are a big challenge for those who grew up speaking Mandarin. When I eventually get to China to visit its wine regions I will, no doubt, make a terrible hash of its names, too. Pronunciation, and ‘legibility’ in its widest sense, are a gigantic impediment to the global wine trade.

Are there any solutions? Cserszegi Fűszeres was famously marketed (by Hilltop Neszmély) as ‘The Unpronounceable Grape’, but that is no doubt a trademark and it’s a trick you can only play once. From time to time, I have toyed with the idea of trying to create a kind of periodic table for grape varieties, or more generally abbreviating variety names to a 1-, 2- or 3-letter code in the way that chemical elements (or airports) are abbreviated. Blends could then be annotated like chemical formulae (so Lafleur 2009 would be glossed M3CF2, Peter Michael’s 2009 Les Pavots CS33CF11M5PV1 and the 2009 Crianza Rioja from CVNE T4G1CG1). Cserszegi Fűszeres then becomes the sweetly simple CSF, and Öküzgözü becomes the lovable OK. The OIV could be responsible for creating and administering the codes. Such a scheme may, I admit, seem affectively repellent, but there’s no theoretical impediment to it and it might one day make a useful back-label code.

Numbers are another way out of the impasse: unlike words and names, figures are universal. Every variety could be given a ‘V number’, along the lines of Europe’s food-additive codes (the celebrated ‘E numbers’). Of course, numerical combinations grow tiresomely complex very soon, and in our digital age most people now have too many numbers in their lives to remember anyway. Numbers, too, lack emotional appeal.  

The solution of last resort would be to attempt to re-baptise the most challengingly named grape varieties.  Personally, though, I’d be against this: it seems like cultural defeatism, and would result in schmaltz. The names of crosses and hybrids are bad enough already. Optima and Regent sound like washing-up liquid.  

For the time being, anyway, there is no alternative to grappling with the wine world’s strangest consonants and syllables. A least a glass of wine makes it easier, as we proved in Turkey.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com