Grape varieties: to capitalize or not to capitalize?

Is it merlot or Merlot? Grenache or grenache? And is it sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon blanc or Sauvignon Blanc? As a language professional, it is my job to know: are the names of wine varietals capitalized? Admittedly, I have tried to find the rule many times, but have never come up with a satisfactory answer. So it’s time to set the record straight once and for all by summarizing my research and issuing my professional recommendation.

Image: Brodie Vissers

Some of you may already know that my main gig is freelance translation. As a translator, you can’t just be detail-oriented, you have to be detail-obsessed. 

I easily get lost in the infinite world of Google searches to find exact equivalents of specific terms, and am constantly looking up grammar rules like whether Canadian spelling favours “practicing” or “practising” (the latter), or whether all words in a heading should be capitalized (according to the Canadian Style, only if they are centred on the page). It’s no wonder I am often brain-dead at the end of the day. Thank goodness for wine.

Classy post-translation wining

Speaking of wine and capitalization, every time I start writing the name of a grape on this wine blog, I hesitate—is it chardonnay or Chardonnay?

So I set out to do some research.

Point 1: General capitalization rule for plants

I began my research looking at the big picture. Grapes grow on a vine and can be classified as a plant. Therefore, from a grammatical standpoint, wine grapes should theoretically be treated like any other plant. In Modern English usage, the common names of plants are not capitalized. Roses are lower case, violets are too. So it would stand to reason that grapes follow suit.

image: Freepik.com

Point 2: Moving away from overcapitalization

In response to the overwhelming overuse of capitals in the past few decades, there has been a recent shift in writing style standards towards less capitalization, mainly in an effort to simplify readability. Perhaps the wine industry should do the same?

Point 3: The great debate among wine and writing specialists

I then expanded my research to see how various reputable publications handle this upper case/lower case wine question.

And I unearthed what turned out to be a heated debate among both wine and language professionals. Here are where these publications stand:

Interestingly, looking at the two columns above, there is a distinct polarization based on specialization. It seems that wine professionals tend to capitalize wine varietals, whereas the general press does not.

My conclusion

I can understand that wine professionals want to highlight the importance of grape varieties by capitalizing them. That said, personally, I tend to side with the language professionals on this one, simply because there’s no grammatical justification for putting an upper case initial letter on grape names. “Because that’s what Jancis Robinson does”—one of the top reasons used in most online forums on this matter—is not a compelling enough argument for me.

However, as with any rule in the English language, there are always exceptions.

Caveat: Exception to the rule

While grape varieties like pinot noir, merlot, syrah/shiraz, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc should remain lower case when written in a sentence, capitalize wines and grapes named after the geographical place where they are made.

Examples of the Exception

So there you have it. Hereinafter, barring the above exception, I shall no longer capitalize grape varieties. This also applies to wine styles, such as rosé, sherry and sparkling. Also, I’m not saying that this is an official hard-and-fast rule. It’s a judgment call that every (wine) writer has to make for themselves.

Be honest: have you ever wondered about whether wine and grapes should be capitalized in a sentence, too?

Come on, really? Am I the only one? Thanks, then, for your patience while I geeked out a bit.

What other grammar issues (wine-related or otherwise) do you find yourself constantly questioning?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to celebrate my findings with a glass of port (lower case—”port” is indeed based on the place name of its origin, Porto, but it is a variant, so doesn’t fall under the exception above).

Happy wining!

5 thoughts on “Grape varieties: to capitalize or not to capitalize?

  1. Mel, I enjoyed this article so much! I’m a former EFL/ESL teacher and writer who loves words and crafting sentences. I openly admit to fussing over the capitalization issue, along with lamenting the loss of adverbs…what happened to quickly? Why does everything happen “fast” now?
    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane, I feel your pain! In all honesty I started writing this post years ago, but never got around to finalizing it. Eventually I couldn’t stand the ongoing internal argument with myself on the capitalization issue and decided to just do the research and make a decision for myself. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

      Like

  2. Huh, neat! I have never thought about it…. though I guess in the emails about the Pinot Grigio, I put capitals. I would never have thought about capitalizing ‘champagne’ though… but then again, I just learned (learnt? lol) in reading your post that it’s named after the region. Oops! 🙂 Being French speaker as well (like you), I also have a hard time keeping things straight between the two languages. I said, ‘subStraction’ in English for the longest time and wrote’ exerciSe’ in French for the longest time. You know what the answer is? Write in Thai… there are no caps at all! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Agronika food pairing experiment – video | Wining with Mel

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