By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Foreign wine words

And they’re not just on foreign wines, either. Our own homegrown winemakers have betrayed their very Americanness by using words on their wine labels that boggle the mind. It’s hard to utter them without contracting foot-in-mouth disease.

One word of particular importance to those who take their wine and their state’s involvement in it seriously is “noir.” And being by far Oregon’s predominant wine variety, pinot noir deserves a better oral break.

The pronunciation of “noir” — “black” in French — has been a subject of misunderstanding, and thus disagreement, ever since wine varieties carrying that name first reached our shores.

Admittedly, non-native speakers attempting to emulate the accents and inflections of any foreign language may be perceived as arrogant, affected, even downright foolish.

However, pinot noir is such an integral part of the Oregon wine industry, it is instructive to point out how the French pronounce the word. By doing so, we can find the level at which we feel comfortable in our own effort to capture the essence of the “mot francais” that references the non-color created by the total absence of light.

Noir is not pronounced “nwah” by the French,” but rather “nwahrr” or even “nuhwah-ruh,” with a soft, lingering glottal “ruh” that falls away at the end.

So, what would be the preferable way for an English speaker to pronounce noir? Should we ignore the soft “r” altogether by saying “nwah,” like “saw,” or pronounce it “nwahr,” like “car,” without attempting to imitate the glottal sound? Or should we perhaps go so far as to stretch out the “errr” ending of the word’s single syllable?

It would seem the old saying, “moderation in all things,” applies here. I’d advise neither dropping the “r” altogether nor overemphasizing it. The prudent English-speaking person would be best advised to succinctly say “nwahr” and leave it at that.

Of course, how one chooses to pronounce “pinot” should “be no” problem as long as you stop before you get to the “t,” which is silent.

But Oregon’s greatest grape isn’t the only foreign wine word that poses pronunciation problems.

I’m not talking about obscure names like crljenak kaštelanski, for the Croatian grape from which zinfandel is descended, or rkatsiteli, which is pronounced “rkah-Tsee-tely,” for a native Georgian grape. That’s the Georgia of Eastern Europe, by the way, not the Georgia of the American South, where natives include scuppernong, from the vitis rotundifolia family.

No, I’m actually talking about more common terms like gewürztraminer and tempranillo. Try rolling those off your tongue on the first try.

Gewürz has an accent mark called an umlaut over the “u,” which reminds native German speakers that a guttural or throaty emphasis is called for.

What’s particularly fascinating about this intensely flavored white varietal, which aficionados either adore or disdain, is that it originated in the Alsace-Lorraine region. Over time, Alsace-Lorraine has switched allegiances back and forth between France and Germany so many times that almost everyone in the region speaks both languages.

Tempranillo, a noble Spanish red that is rapidly gaining favor in Southern Oregon, appears to be a really classy comer. That’s particularly true for the Umpqua Valley, but also for parts of the Rogue.

The grape is responsible for the great Rioja reds, and more recently, stars from Ribero del Duero. It is pronounced temp-ruh-NEE-yoh.

Double-L constructions in Spanish have a soft “y” sound, but Americans seem to have a hard time fully embracing that.

Take the city of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most Bay Area denizen pronounce it Vall-A-ho when they should be pronouncing it Vah-yay-ho. Some residents have even taken to calling it Valley Joe, but that’s just locals being overly local. It’s like calling Grand Ronde “Grand Round.”

Then there’s albariño, a piquantly luscious white from Spain. The squiggly little tilde over the “n” means its pronounced like niño, making it Al-buh-reen-yo. And, in fact, Abacela Vineyards is making a particularly noteworthy albariño locally.

Riesling, long a popular German white, frequently gets the Reese-ling treatment and occasionally even the Rye-zling attempt. The correct pronunciation is Reez-ling, with a soft but apparent “zee” sound.

Perhaps one of our most egregious errors occurs in our pronunciation of “veraison,” a lovely French wine word that describes the time when red wine grape skins begin to shed their immature green hue and take on some purple and dark blue hues. This turning of color is called “vair-A-zohn” by the French, with the “n” so soft as to almost be lost.

Far too many Americans insist on pronouncing it vuhr-A-zhun. Instead of starting the final syllable with the zoh sound of zohn, they begin it with a curious, vibrating zhuh. Regrettably, that pays poor lip service to a really rather special wine word.

No one expects a native English speaker to imitate all the accents of a native French speaker when pronouncing, for example, cabernet sauvignon.

But we should at least try not to butcher words or phrases whose origins are well known. Wine is, after all, the most universal of international beverages, and the one that can claim by far the closest association with place and context.

Let’s respect that reality and celebrate the rich and ancient heritage of wine. After all, it has been an integral part of civilization since the time humans started living in close association.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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