De Long Wine Moment


June 4th, 2008

Should Grape Varieties Be Capitalized?

Is it Cabernet Sauvignon or cabernet sauvignon?

The New York Times and don’t capitalize the names of grape varieties but practically everyone else does. What, then, is the correct usage?

This may seem a little geeky or pedantic but it’s important for anyone who writes about wine. I seem to revisit this question every couple of years without satisfaction. This year, however, I believe I finally have the answer thanks to some online research and a series of emails with Tyler Colman AKA Dr. Vino.

Since neither Tyler or I have the book, the assumption is that the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says not to capitalize grape variety names. Thus not knowing what they base their no-caps decision on, we turned instead to Wikipedia to investigate naming conventions in botany and found some interesting things:

from the Variety (Botany) page:

In viticulture, what is referred to as “grape varieties” are in reality cultivars rather than varieties according to usage in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, since they are propagated by cuttings and have properties that are not stable under sexual reproduction (seed plants). However, usage of the term variety is so entrenched in viticulture that a change to cultivar is unlikely.

Ok, since it’s actually a cultivar, I went to the Cultivar page to see how they’re named:

A cultivar name consists of a botanical name (of a genus, species, infraspecific taxon, interspecific hybrid or intergeneric hybrid) followed by a cultivar epithet. The cultivar epithet is capitalised and put between single quotes: preferably it should not be italicized. Cultivar epithets published before 1 January 1959 were often given a Latin form and can be readily confused with the specific epithets in botanical names: after that date, newly coined cultivar epithets must be in a modern vernacular language to distinguish them from botanical epithets.

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Aureomarginata’ (pre-1959 name, Latin in form)
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden Wonder’ (post-1959 name, English language)
Pinus densiflora ‘Akebono’ (post-1959 name, Japanese language)

The technically correct nomenclature for a grape variety would then be: Vitis vinifera ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’. It would be unnecessarily pedantic to include Vitis vinifera each time we write about grape varieties so what then is the proper way to condense the name? Should they be capitalized or not?

Based on this research, I’m going to continue to capitalize grape varieties. If it’s good enough for Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, Maynard Amerine and Emile Peynaud, it’s good enough for me.

Tyler (a die hard New Yorker), however, isn’t swayed by this evidence and will continue to not capitalize grape names along with the Times.

What do you think? Cabernet Sauvignon or cabernet sauvignon?

  • Marcus

    Steve, I love that you answer my questions without having to even ask them.

    I was getting ready to accept that the capitalization I employed on my site was terribly wrong-headed — I actually suspected lower case was “more” correct. Yet here you produce an interesting thread. But, like when drinking wine, you cannot always explain what you feel so I will continue to put caps my varieties because, I dunno, it just feels good somehow… no matter the prevailing theory on etymology or accepted style (hope that doesn’t make me sound like an ignoramus).

    Sir, next question: Can wine ignoramuses be considered of the same breed as wine idiot savants? I need to know. Thanks

  • Steve De Long

    Hi Marcus,

    It’s an honor to be your psychic answer desk and I’m glad that you now feel good about capitalizing grape varieties. I know I do. Syrah. Mourvèdre. Grenache. That felt good.

    As for your second question, I believe both breeds have comfy chairs in Darwin’s waiting room but I’ll have to look into it further.

  • Gabriella

    I sort of feel like a heel that I’ve never taken the time to check this out. Sure, I turned to the great grape guru, Jancis, for information on whether we should write ‘varietal’ or ‘variety’, but never thought twice that I should check and see if its Xarel.lo or xarel.lo. I fear that if you go back in our posts, you’ll see a wide array of capitals and lowercase all mixed together in a nice little varietal sandwich. I suppose I need to pay more attention to my grape grammar ;-)

  • Marcus

    Gabriella may have inadvertently stumbled onto something… I’m thinking…

    Cabernet sauvignon or cabernet Franc, peut-être?

  • Steve De Long

    Hi Gabriella,

    I don’t think very many people pay much attention to this issue. I would definitely not pay attention to Marcus who is obviously stirring up trouble to shamelessly promote his latest Snak-Cam shots. They look tasty, though.

  • Imitation Perfume

    In this day an age with blogs and what not where spelling and punctuation seems to have taken a backseat to content, It really is up to who is writing. Me personally? I’m concentrating more on spelling Cabernet Sauvignon correctly than making sure it’s capitalized.

  • Fredric Koeppel

    On those “v” words: “Variety” is a noun; “varietal” is an adjective. So grapes come in varieties, as in, say, “Cabernet sauvignon is my favorite grape variety.” A wine that is true to its grape is varietally correct. The whole “varietal” thing as a noun started in California in the mid or late 1980s.

  • Marcus

    Anyone else see the irony when “Imitation Perfume” criticizes other people’s content?

  • Ellen Wallace

    I tripped over this (and will be paying return visits!) while looking up information about the sex lives of grapes, to make sure my terminology was correct, going from French to English. So let me put in my two bits, as a wine writer but also as the author of a popular international English style guide, researched and written after years of struggling with conflicting styles guides because I wrote for Time, Business Week, the Christian Science Monitor, The European, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times. I’m not listing them for name-dropping purposes but to make my point that they all have or use good style guides and they disagree on too many points to list, starting with what you capitalize and what you don’t and why.Style guides are especially important for large publications that have many contributors or the end result would be chaotic and an unpleasant reading experience. I’ve been researching the caps for grapes issue lately because I’m preparing the first-ever English version of the bible on Swiss wines, Le Guide des Vins Suisses, an encyclopedic book with a team of six – we needed consistent rules from the start or we’d lose too much time (= money) arguing! I came to the same conclusion as Steve: use the capital letters. I’m American but working in Europe and while there is a general overall trend, started in the US, to make more words lower case, it hasn’t spread tas quickly outside the US. One of the big reasons is that lower case makes a web page far easier to read: a lot of good research shows this is the case. But with wine texts I don’t see this as much of an issue. And lower case grape names simple appear to many Europeans to be a mistake. I just checked out Jancis Robinson’s page and using this as an example,, I’d say the owner and place names sprinkled all over are more of a problem than the capped grape names, but I guess no one is going to write “the robert mondavi winery in napa valley, california.”

  • Doug

    Got side-tracked while looking for Wine Century info, so I thought I’d chime in. This has been a conundrum for me too, since I’ve seen it written both ways. Cultivars, hybrids, and clones, oh my!! I’ve got an AP Stylebook (evidence of when I thought I wanted to be a journalism major) which says jack about grapes, cultivars, epithets, or even botanical and taxonomic names. With all respect toward the folk at the Times, they are journalists, not scientists; however, being the investigative folks that they are, I would hope they consulted botanists before canonizing the no-cap rule. Still, they are generalists, not subject matter experts, and maybe they will eventually catch up to the scientific standard. As I recall, the “common sense” of society ends up going with what science says, not the other way around. Remember when we learned people at one time believed it was obvious the Sun revolved around the Earth?

  • Kerith Overstreet

    Holey smokes! I am awed and stunned that other people care about this pedantic minutiae as much as I! I posted a similarly themed blog entry for my wine website,, only to come across your musings today. Interestingly, I wrote the rough draft for my post some months ago, as soon as I got my UCD syllabus for the Introduction to Winemaking course. After reading your comments, in conjunction with my own thoughts as outlined in my post, I compiled an unofficial and admittedly biased study based on the wine books in my personal library. The following 4 authors do not capitalize variety names: John Winthrop Haeger (North American Pinot Noir), Ruth Reichl (Garlic and Sapphires, The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise), Karen MacNeil (monthly columns in Cooking Light magazine), and Eric Asimov of the New York Times. However, the following folks do use caps: Halliday and Johnson (The Art and Science of Wine), Jay McInerney (A Hedonist in the Cellar), Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking), Gaiter & Breecher (WSJ Guide to Wine), and Oz Clarke (Grapes and Wine). Final tally – 5 to 4, in favor of caps. But in my heart, I still don’t think grape variety names in and of themselves are proper nouns. Now what do I do? Buy another book?

  • Steve De Long

    Doug – In this case, you’re right, language does follow the scientists. The problem is that ampelographers (people who study grapevines) in French use no caps and in English, caps.

    Kerith – your title is much better than mine – How Proper is Your Pinot? – on this overwrought subject.

  • Mark Greenaway

    Late, but hopefully useful
    I have looked at all the English style guides that mention grapes
    Genus is capitalised, species is not
    Grape variety names are capitalised
    So it is Vitis vinifera and Cabernet Sauvignon
    I have no idea what non-English speakers ( such as the French ) have for their rules
    But all the English ( well at least British and Australian ) are very clear


  • Eric

    I prefer uncapitalized.

  • James

    Coming to this very late, but there is a further missed distinction. Different grape cultivar names are capitalised, but be careful what is the name of the cultivar. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cultivar, as is Pinot. The latter cultivar comes with different coloured grapes, which are distinguished with descriptors (in this case mostly grape colour), and descriptors are not capitalised. Therefore, if you want to be VERY correct, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon blanc, and Pinot gris, or properly Vitis vinifera ‘Pinot’ noir. Cheers

  • Steve De Long

    Hi James,

    Thank you for the late comment, which is aptly the final word.

  • Jo Diaz

    The University Wine Course: A Wine Appreciation Text & Self Tutorial, which I had to purchase to go along with my enology course at Santa Rosa Junior College (excellent wine program, given the local talent for teaching), written by Ph.D. Marian W. Baldy – also used at UC Davis as a text book…

    Look up any cultivar/variety (the synonym noun, with variety being an adjective) and you’re going to find it in capitalization.

    I won’t be changing what I do or how I write cultivars any time soon, but an interesting read and subsequent thoughts.

  • Eleni Fourtouni

    Yes, Capitalized. They are propper names.

    Question: What is the accepted rule for cheese varieties. Should it be Feta cheese, feta cheese, simply, Feta, or should it be feta?

    Sincirely, Eleni Fourtouni

  • nacozari

    hairs can be split even further on this topic (as I translate a guide to wines from Spanish into English)… in two-worded grape variety names, should only the first word be capitalized or both, or does it depend on the characteristics of the variety name. for instance, with Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be obvious to capitalize both, because Sauvignon seems like its origin is as a surname or region name (not going to look that up, sorry!), whereas with “Pinot noir” i feel an enormous urge to put “noir” in lowercase, due to some ‘je ne sais quoi’…. despite this urge, i think i will just capitalize everything for purposes of consistency. here is a list of dozens of varieties, which is also inconsistent! almost all capitals, but then you will find the occasional second word uncapitalized (increasing my anguish!) good luck

  • WineClubReviews

    Hmmm… most interesting. If you’re talking about the plants themselves, all of the discussion regarding official botanical nomenclature is spot on. But the glorious juice is not a plant and therefore plays by different rules, no? I’m going to split the baby and use both caps and non-caps just to keep things interesting ;)

  • jesse

    Like the discussion. What about nicknames? Like cab or pinot. Surely we aren’t capitalizing zin? But, Pinot Noir. Perhaps context is important. Like dad. If you are addressing your father or the royal Pinot, they are Father. But when we casually speak of dads or cabs, we’re not going to capitalize. I’m just shooting from the hip, but I would imagine capitalization was traditionally less rigorous than it has been over the past century. I would argue there is value in having flexibility in certain capitalizations and not being restrained by fixed rules. obviously that Flexibility has limited Merits.

  • Michael

    I’m writing too, but novels. If I refer to a variety like Clare Valley riesling meaning all rieslings from the Clare Valley, I prefer lower case for the variety as it’s generic not specific. If I refer to a particular wine like say Bartel Reisling (I made it up) I’ll use upper case because it’s part of the brand name. Don’t ask me why, it just feels and looks right.

  • Dermot Shirley

    makes me want to only order AOC wines to avoid screwing up. Nothing but Pomerol, Burgundy and Haut-Médoc from now on.

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  • tasket

    Hmm. This is a persuasive argument!

  • tasket

    I’ve always been torn on this issue too, but, as respected as the NYT is as a publication, they aren’t the recognized wine experts Robinson, Johnson & Co. are. Gonna side with the professionals till I see convincing evidence otherwise.