Should Grape Varieties Be Capitalized?

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.

byThis 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?

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  • 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.”

    Ellen Wallace on
  • Hi James,

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

    Steve De Long on
  • 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

    James on
  • I prefer uncapitalized.

    Eric on
  • 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


    Mark Greenaway on
  • 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.

    jesse on
  • 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 ;)

    WineClubReviews on
  • 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

    nacozari on
  • 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

    Eleni Fourtouni on
  • 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.

    Jo Diaz on

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