Wine Language - Grapes, Vines and Vineyards
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Wine Language - Grapes, Vines and Vineyards

The word “grape” came into English in a rather roundabout way. Botanically, the fruit of the grapevine is called a “berry,” as in the phrase “The Cabernet Sauvignon grape has small berries with thick skins.” In Anglo-Saxon days the fruit was called the “winberie.” Though English wineries had a good reputation during the late middle ages (when the climate was warmer and dryer), France came to set the standards for viticulture and winemaking. The French would harvest each bunch of grapes with a hook called a grappe (as in the word “grappling hook” or our verb “to grapple”); the term “grappe” came to refer to the cluster that resulted when the tool was used.

Enter now a bit of present-day confusion. The French word for grape, raisin, is identical in spelling to our term for dried grape but pronounced rather more elegantly (what we call “raisins” are raisins secs in French). The Middle French term grappe de raisin, meaning bunch of grapes, was shortened by English speakers to grappe. It took only a quick semantic jump for the term grappe (which sounds like an English singular form) to refer to a single berry rather than a bunch. We added an “s” to indicate more that one and reached into the great storehouse of Anglo-Saxon words for that useful descriptor “bunch.”

Bear in mind that when French and English words look the same but have different meanings, the French speakers become just as confused as we do. We can avoid any confusion in the future by readopting out lost treasure “wineberie,” modernizing the spelling to the evocative “wineberry.” Any seconds to this motion? I can wait.

As to the tendrils upon which the grapes, be they in bunches or grappes, grow, our present word vine and the French vigne (as in the label term vielles vignes, meaning old vines) are largely similar. In the wine world, the use of either term refers to grapes. The term “Grapevine” is used only when we need to distinguish the grape plant from vines not bearing such versatile fruit.

Our English term “vineyard” comes from the Old English winegeard, and it is telling that the word has a metaphoric meaning according to my dictionary: “a field of activity, especially of spiritual labor.” Americans, the English and the other Anglophones have shortened the “vine” sound in the first syllable to “vin” and yet we differ as to the second syllable: “yerd” in the United States, “yard” elsewhere. Somehow “grape-farm” just doesn’t convey the magic, despite the rather ordinary effect of the word “yard” in most contexts, as in backyard, graveyard, and, the world’s most frightening place, the schoolyard. These vine “yards” may be rather small in England, but in the United States and Australia they can cover thousands of acres, rather a large yard to have to straighten up every spring.

The Hungarian term for vineyard, szőlőskert, may seem rather exotic, until we learn the term for grape, szőlő. The Slovenian vinograd, the Italian vigneto, the French vignoble, the Spanish viñedo, and the Portuguese vinhedo all move in the same direction (the original Latin is vinea). You don't need to attend a course to know what the Germans mean by Weingarten, nor are we much thrown by the Dutch wijngaard, the Swedish vingård or even the Icelandic víngarður (this is not just an academic exercise, since with global warming, we might be seeing Icelandic vintages some day, and they get rather long ripening days in summer). In the Germanic languages, including English, the “garden” words and the “yard” words share an etymologic root.

Now that you know the Hungarian for grape, it pays to addle the brain with the rest of Eastern Europe (since a glass of wine will be the inevitable remedy). Among the Slavic wine ountries, the Slovenians (big wine producers, but they drink it all themselves so you don't get any) call the grape grozdje, the Russians гроздь, the Croatians and Serbs grožđe, the Czechs hrozen, the Bulgarians грозде. In Romania, the grape is strugure. Romanian terms are a bit easier on the tongue, since the language is of Latin origin: vin rosu is red wine, vin rose is rosé, vin alb white wine; a vie is a vine.

You're over the hard part: the grape is uva in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and in fact in the original Latin. It only takes a small phonetic shift in the Scandinavian languages: druer in Denmark (which boasts the highest per capita wine consumption among all non-producing countries), vindruva in Swedish, drue in Norwegian, vinber among those future vintners, the Icelanders. Our linguistic cousins the Dutch use a similar wijndruif. The Germans go their own way, with many terms for the grape including Rebe, Traube, Weintraube, Beere and Weinbeere. You will note of course that this final term moves us full circle back to our original Anglo-Saxon wineberries. Can I now call for another vote?

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In addition to my food and wine writing, I act as North American representative for Dialogue language schools. If you've always wanted to do an intensive session in French, Spanish, Italian or German in Europe before your wine tour, here's more information.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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