Variety vs. Varietal

Variety and varietal are terms that are used quite frequently in conversations about wine.  Often, there is confusion about which word to use – even among wine professionals.  In fact, it seems the term “varietal” may be one of the most misused terms in all of winedom.  But it’s not just when talking about wine – I recently heard a chef on TV mentioning different varietals of apples, and not too long ago, I saw a sign advertising “oyster varietals”.   So, what is the difference between variety and varietal, and how should these terms be properly used?


Pinot Noir grand cru BurgundyThe word variety is a noun.   When speaking about wine, a variety is a type of vine or a type of grape.  For example, Pinot Noir is a grape variety.  Many people will use the word varietal when they really mean variety.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine states that:

“Vine varieties are distinct types of vine within one species of the vine genus vitis. Different vine varieties produce different varieties of grapes, so that the terms vine variety and grape variety are used almost interchangeably. Each variety of vine, or grape, may produce distinct and identifiable styles and flavours of wine.”


The word varietal is an adjective and refers to a wine that is labelled with the name of the grape variety or varieties from which it is made.  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine:

“Varietal is a descriptive term for a wine named after the dominant grape variety from which it is made. The word is increasingly misused in place of vine variety. A varietal wine is distinct from a wine named after its own geographical provenance…. “

Wines that are named after the appellation or geological area in which they were made are not considered varietal wines. Most varietal wines are single varietal wines (made with just one variety), but there are some examples that may be blends of two or more grapes.  A few common varietal blends are Chardonnay/Semillon, Cabernet/Merlot, and Cabernet/Shiraz.  Varietally labelled wines are most common in New World wine regions, where they make up the majority of wines produced.  Some wine regions allow wines to be labelled as a single varietal even though they may contain up to 25% of another grape variety.

The phrase varietal character refers to the aroma and flavour characteristics typical for specific grape varieties, and is also known as typicity.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

Bachelder’s Trio of 2009 Chardonnays

Bachelder 2009 ChardonnaysThomas Bachelder, former winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, has released a trio of Chardonnays from 3 different wine regions around the world – Burgundy, Oregon, and Niagara.  Why were these areas chosen?  Well, Niagara and Oregon have cooler climates similar to Burgundy, Chardonnay’s ancestral homeland, and since Bachelder wanted to showcase cool climate Chardonnay at its finest, these were logical choices.

Thomas has lived and worked in all three of these regions at some point in his winemaking career.  He does not own vineyards or wineries in these regions; he rents space in other wineries to craft these regional wines.  Please click here to see Konrad Ejbich’s interview with Thomas Bachelder.

An Education in Terroir

This project is a true education in terroir.  Although there is no direct English translation for this French term, “terroir” can be thought of, very simply, as the whole natural environment of a vineyard site. It refers to the soil, topography, climate, and even grape varieties and viticultural practices. The various types and combinations of each of these factors is unique to each site and is believed to contribute to the flavours, aromas, and style of the wine. The terroir of a particular place cannot be replicated elsewhere.


Bachelder made each wine exactly the same way in order to illustrate the unique terroir of each region – the only thing different is the ground the grapes were grown in.  The grapes are not from one specific vineyard, but were sourced from a number of good vineyards in each region, organic wherever possible.  Wild yeasts were used for fermentation and then the wines were aged for 16 months in older oak barrels. The oak is subtle and integrated and does not overpower the natural aromas and flavours of the Chardonnay grape.

All three wines were released at Vintages at the LCBO on Saturday, February 18, but the Oregon wine was pulled off the shelves temporarily.  Read “Tartrates in Wine – Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay” to find out why.  I didn’t open the wines until I was able to open all three of them together and could taste them side by side.

Bachelder Bourgogne ChardonnayBachelder Bourgogne Chardonnay 2009:  A bit tight with delicate aromas of lemon/lime citrus, yellow apple, white blossoms, wet stone, and a chalky, steely character.  The  rather austere minerality follows through onto the palate where there is a zippy acidity and a long length.  This is the most austere and flinty of the three Chardonnays (definitely Old World in style), but no less delicious.  I think this is my favourite of the three.  A great food wine.

Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay 2009Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay 2009:  Sweet, ripe fruit aromas of pineapple, peach, and citrus, with vanilla, minerals, and a very slight nutty note.  Rich and creamy on the palate with notes of sweet vanilla, caramel, and ripe yellow fruit, and a long length.  A style for those who like a rounder, creamier texture in their white wines. This is certainly more of a New World style, but it still retains the tension typical of cool climate Chardonnay, with a slight tartness on the finish.  While it’s very different from the Bourgogne Chardonnay, it’s without question a very pleasurable wine.

Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2009Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2009:  Stylistically, this Chardonnay lies somewhere between the Burgundy and Oregon examples.  It has the both the acidity and minerality of the Chardonnay from Burgundy, as well as some of the fruit flavours of the wine from Oregon.  This wine is full of citrus, tree fruit, wet stone, and spice aromas.  I also found a touch of smokiness – not sure if that’s the limestone soils the grapes grow in or the judicious use of oak.  This wine has a firm structure and a long length.  Very delicious.

All three of these wines are worth the $34.95 price tag at the LCBO.  If you can splurge a bit or have some wine-loving friends coming over, then I recommend you buy all three and taste them together to really get a feel for the unique terroir of each region.

Tartrates in Wine – Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay

Tartrate Crystals on a CorkYesterday, I went into my local LCBO eager to purchase the trio of newly released Bachelder Chardonnays – one from Niagara, one from Burgundy, and one from Oregon.  Thomas Bachelder is the former winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario and I was really looking forward to trying the wines from his new venture. (For more information, read “Thomas Bachelder’s Dream Trilogy of Chardonnays: Niagara, Burgundy, Oregon” at Wines in Niagara.)  I found the Bourgogne and Niagara wines easily, but when I couldn’t locate the Chardonnay from Oregon, I asked a product consultant.  What did she tell me? –  that the Bachelder Chardonnay from Oregon had been recalled because of tartrates.  I had to give my head a shake to make sure I understood properly.

This whole ordeal is unfortunate for so many reasons.  One is that a probably perfectly good wine has been pulled off LCBO shelves for nothing.  Tartrates are completely natural in wine, are completely harmless, and their presence does not mean that the wine is faulty.  The only problem with tartrates is their appearance and  mouthfeel.  To unknowing consumers, they may be mistaken for shards of glass.  Another reason this situation is unfortunate is much more selfish – I really wanted to try this wine made by a quality conscious and well-respected winemaker.

What are Tartrates?

All wine contains acids: malic acid and tartaric acid are the dominant ones.  Malic acid can be converted into the softer lactic acid during Malolactic Fermentation, but tartaric acidcream of tartar remains in the wine, where it is responsible for retaining a wine’s appropriate pH and helping to reduce spoilage.  In cold temperatures, the tartaric acid will combine with potassium, which is also naturally found in wine, and form a solid called postassium bitartrate.  Potassium bitartrate looks like little crystals, giving them their nickname, wine diamonds.  They may appear as a powdery white substance at the bottom of the wine bottle or your wine glass, or if the crystals link together and grow, they can look like crystallized sugar or shards of glass. The crystals can also stick to the bottom of the cork as in the above photograph.  Potassium bitartrate is the same thing as Cream of Tartar which is used in cooking.

Tartrates can be found in both red and white wine, but the formation of wine diamonds is less common in reds wines, as their level of tartaric acid is lower, and more tends to fall out naturally in the aging process.  A process called ‘cold stabilization‘ can be used to remove tartrates from wine before it is bottled, and many producers do use this technique for purely aesthetic reasons.  However, cold stabilization may effect the wine’s quality.  The natural acid content in the wine may be reduced to a point where citric acid needs to be added to adjust acidity levels, and there is the risk of unwanted oxygen being added to the wine during the process (Goode, J., and Harrop, S., Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, 2011).  In fact, many believe that higher quality wines should not undergo unnecessary processes, such as fining, filtering and cold stabilization, in order to preserve the wine’s subtle character.

So, if you discover a wine that has wine diamonds, be happy that the wine has not been over-processed.  Just be careful when pouring the wine so that the crystals remain at the bottom of the bottle and not in your glass.  You can also decant the wine just as you would to remove sediment, even if it’s a white wine.  If you do happen to ingest some of these crystals, fear not…they are completely harmless.

NOTE:  Today, Wednesday February 22, 2012, 4 days after the wine was pulled from the shelves, I was finally able to purchase the Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay.  I was under Tartrates in the Bachelder Oregon Chardonnaythe impression that there was to be a notice attached to it explaining tartrates, but I saw no notice at all.  I can see tartrates in both bottles I bought, but I know that it’s nothing to worry about.  Please stay tuned for my tasting notes on the 3 Bachelder Chardonnays.

The Twelve Days of Christmas for a Wine Lover

Christmas Wine

Dear True Love,

In case you were wondering…see below for a list of things I’d really like.  I’ll make sure there’s room under the tree.

The Twelve Days of Christmas for this Wine Lover

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me,

A case of Grand Cru Burgundy.


On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me,

Two Tawny Ports,

And a case of Grand Cru Burgundy.


On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me,

Three First Growths,

Two Tawny Ports,

And a case of Grand Cru Burgundy.


On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,

Four Super Tuscans,

Three First Growths,

Two Tawny Ports,

And a case of Grand Cru Burgundy.


On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,

Five Jeroboams…..(Optional – “Of Champagne” can be sung like the “with fingers” version of the song)

Four Super Tuscans,

Three First Growths,

Two Tawny Ports,

And a case of Grand Cru Burgundy.


 Okay, you get the idea.  Here’s the rest of the song:

 Six German Rieslings

Seven Sweet Sauternes

Eight Ontario Icewines

Nine Cabs from Napa

Ten Barolo di Barolos

Eleven Mature Mersaults

Twelve Palo Cortados

How to Make Mulled Wine

Mulled WineThe fire is gently crackling, the Christmas tree is glowing in the corner of the room, a classic holiday movie is on the television, and you’re curled up on the couch with a cozy blanket and a warm cup of mulled wine – the perfect scenario for a chilly December evening.

Mulled wine has been around for millennia, with the first written recipes for the drink dating back to Roman times.  Poor winemaking and inadequate storage vessels caused wine to spoil quickly, so adding sugar and spices to the wine was a way to delay spoilage and to help make the wine taste better.  Since the wine started to go bad around Christmastime, mulled wine became associated with this time of year.

Mulled wine was sealed as a Christmas tradition with its appearance in Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol”, and then later in the classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Clarence the Angel orders a mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.”

Making Mulled Wine

“Mulled” means heated and spiced, and there are countless recipes on how to make it – much of it has to do with personal taste.  Most recipes include red Making Mulled Winewine, cinnamon, cloves, citrus peel, and some kind of sweetener such as white sugar, brown sugar, or honey, as the wine can become a bit bitter when heated.  Other spices commonly added are mace, nutmeg, ginger, juniper, black pepper, vanilla, and star anise.  Sometimes the drink is fortified with a spirit, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Brandy.  Feel free to experiment with the ingredients and play with how much of each you prefer.  Remember that it’s best to use a fairly inexpensive red wine as the heating process and the addition of the spices will change the wine’s flavour, so don’t waste your best bottle.  A cheaper Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, or Syrah work well.  When heating the mixture, be sure that you do not use too high a heat as boiling the liquid will only burn off the alcohol…and that’s no good.

Mulled Wine Recipe

1 750ml bottle of inexpensive red wine

3 star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tablespoon of whole allspice

A few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg

12 whole cloves

1 small piece of orange peel (if you like you can add more citrus.  I prefer it with a bit less.)

1/4 cup of honey

3 ounces of Grand Marnier

Mix all ingredients together in a large pot and bring to a simmer.  Simmer on low heat for at least half an hour – longer is better to extract the flavour from the ingredients.  Serve in a cup or similar vessel with a cinnamon stick and, if you like, a star anise.  Enjoy!

10 Fun Facts About Champagne Bubbles

Bubbles in ChampagneDuring the holiday season more bottles of Champagne will be opened than any other time of the year.  And, why not?  After all, it is the perfect celebratory drink –  the festive bubbles sparkle in the glow of holiday lights as they rise to the top of the glass and burst, releasing the wine’s enticing aromas, millions of tiny explosions tickling your nose as you take a sip.  Champagne bubbles are like no other bubbles.  They’re fine, elegant, and rich, and create an unforgettable sensation in your mouth that’s bound to bring a smile to your lips.  So, raise a toast to bubbles this holiday season.

10 Facts About Champagne Bubbles

1. One bottle of Champagne contains approximately 47 million separate bubbles.Champagne Bubbles

2.  The bubbles in Champagne are formed during a second fermentation that takes place in the very bottle in which you purchase the wine.  This method of sparkling wine production is called the traditional method, or methode traditionelle.  Very simply, after the initial fermentation is complete, the still wine, or vin clair, is bottled and a liqueur de tirage, a solution of sugar, yeast, and nutrients, is added.  A crown cap is placed on the bottle and the yeast proceeds to devour the sugar, creating alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide.  The carbon dioxide cannot escape from the sealed bottle, so it is dissolved in the wine until the bottle is opened.  Once opened, the carbon dioxide forms tiny, elegant bubbles.

3.  Dom Perignon is often credited as being the creator of sparkling Champagne, and while this is a great marketing gimmick, the truth is that theStatue of Dom Perignon outside Moet & Chandon in Epernay talented Benedictine Monk spent much of his time trying to eradicate bubbles from his precious wine, as he believed sparkling wine was the drink of immoral people, and that bubbles were a fault.  Dom Perignon did, however, put many practices into place in the vineyard and the winery that increased the quality and reputation of the wine from the Champagne region, and he developed a process which enabled him to make high quality white wine from red grapes.  Many of Perignon’s developments are still used today.

(NOTE: Yeasts were not yet understood at the time, so when fermentation stopped due to the cold winter weather in Champagne, it was believed that it was complete.  In the springtime, when the temperatures warmed up, fermentation would start again, sometimes after the wine had already been shipped and/or bottled, forming bubbles in the wine.)

4.  The English were the largest importers of the wines of the Champagne region in the 17th century, and they grew fond of the accidental bubbles.  Documents have shown that it was most likely the English who actually made the first deliberately sparkling wine.  In 1662, an Englishman named Christopher Merret wrote an article for the Royal Society about how adding sugar to a finished wine would make it sparkle.  Incidentally, this was 6 years before Dom Perignon even arrived at the monastery at Hautvillers, where he is said to have ‘invented’ Champagne.

Popping Champagne cork5. The pressure inside a bottle of unopened Champagne is around 6 atmospheres.  That’s about 3 times the pressure inside a car tire, and about the same as the pressure inside the tire of a double-decker bus.  This explains why Champagne bottles and corks are thicker than most.  In 2008, Friedrich Balck, a German scientist, measured the speed of a cork as it left a vigorously shaken bottle of Champagne at 40 km an hour.

6. The glass in which Champagne is served has a huge impact on how the bubbles behave and feel in the mouth.  Cooling the glass will weaken the bubbles, and any grease on the glass will simply destroy them.  Tall, thin glasses seem to be the best bubble savers, and ones that are tulip-shaped will help trap the aromas at the top of the glass.

7.  Bubbles transport the aromas and flavours of the wine to the surface with them, so there is no need to swirl a glass of sparkling wine as we do with a glass of still wine.  Swirling the glass will only make the bubbles disappear faster.

8.  The bubbles form on specific points on the sides of the glass.  These points can be impurities in the glass or particles left in Flutes of Champagnethe glass by the polishing cloth.  Some Champagne glasses even have tiny scratches etched into the bottom to help bubbles form.  The bubbles hold on to these points as they grow, and once they are large enough, they are released, forming elegant pearl-like strings rising to the top of the glass.

9.  Carbon dioxide dissolves into cooler liquids more easily than warmer ones.  This explains why room temperature Champagne will foam so easily when opened.  Vigorously shaking a bottle of Champagne before opening will quickly mix small bubbles of carbon dioxide into the liquid.  When the bottle is opened, the difference in pressure causes the bubbles to grown rapidly and the Champagne bursts out, wasting a great deal of perfectly good Champagne.  Ideally, Champagne should be served at 8° to 10°C and shaking the bottle should be avoided.

10.  The carbon dioxide in a bottle of Champagne will help keep the cork moist so there is no need to store Champagne on its side like you do with bottles of still wine with natural cork.  This has its benefits because the wine will not have contact with the cork, reducing the risk of cork taint.

What Causes Red Wine Headaches (RWH)?

Red Wine Headache (RWH) syndrome is real, and sufferers would love to know exactly what causes the splitting headache they get whenever they attempt to enjoy a glass or two of red wine. But, RWH seems to be a poorly understood subject. While sulfites and histamines are often cited as the culprits, evidence indicates otherwise. Tannins and tyramine are also among the accused.  It seems that no one, not even the experts, are really sure what causes RWH.


Sulfite allergies can be very serious and even life threatening. Over 20 years ago, the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. determined that about 1% of the population suffered from a sulfite allergy. Ever since, “contains sulfites” warnings have been printed on the labels of wine in the U.S. that contain a certain level of sulfites.  These warning labels seem to have sparked a fear that the sulfite levels in wine are hazardous to everyone.

Dr. Frederick G. Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, and an RWH sufferer, is unsure of what actually causes Red Wine Headaches in some people, but he is sure it is not sulfites. He states that, “Sulfites can cause an allergic reaction, but they give headaches only to some asthmatics. The more common reaction to sulfites is a breathing problem.” Some people may also get a bad skin rash.

The fact that many RWH sufferers can drink white wine with no adverse effects also points the finger in a different direction. Sulfites are a natural bi-product of fermentation and are also often added to wine as an antioxidant and microbial agent. All wine contains some sulfites, but white wine and sweet wine actually contain more than red. White wine is more susceptible to oxidation and tends to lose its freshness faster, so it requires the addition of more sulfites during the winemaking process and prior to bottling.

It’s also a fact that wine contains a very small amount of sulfites compared to some other foods including dried fruit, packaged baked goods, and pickled vegetables. In fact, a serving of dried apricots contains 10 times the amount of sulfites as a serving of wine. (It’s interesting to note that these products do not need to carry the government warning in the U.S.). If a person has breathing difficulties or breaks out in a rash after eating these foods and drinking red, white, and sweet wines they may indeed have an allergy to sulfites.


Histamine is a biogenic amine that is produced by the body and can also be ingested through the food and drink we consume. Histamine is a mediator of allergic reactions. On contact with or ingestion of a substance to which a person is “allergic”, histamine is released in the body. If a person ingests something that also contains histamine, the concentration of histamine in the blood can be increased. Foods that contain high amounts of this substance can result in symptoms similar to an allergic reaction in some individuals. Dr. Freitag states that it is more common for individuals to react with a stuffy nose than a headache.  Some people may also react with a cough, rash, or stomach ailments.

Red wine contains more histamine than white wine due to several different vinification processes; however, histamine in wine is a minor constituent when compared to many other foods we consume on a daily basis. Foods such as aged cheese, chocolate, fish, meat, yeast extract and products, strawberries, eggplant, spinach, and tomatoes all have a significant amount of histamine – many of them contain as much as 10 times the amount of histamines as red wine.

A study conducted in 2001 and reported on in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (Volume 107, Issue 2) concluded that there is no correlation between wine intolerance and histamine content of wine. Sixteen people with an intolerance to wine were tested and showed no difference in reaction to low or high levels of histamine in the wine.


The tannins found in red wines may be a cause of RWH.  Tannins contribute the bitter and astringent characteristics to red wine, giving a drying sensation in the mouth.  They are found in the grape skins, seeds, and stems, and are absorbed into red wine during the maceration and fermentation process. They can also be leached into wine from the oak barrels the wine is aged in.  Jamie Goode defines tannins as:

“…polyphenolic compounds that bind to and precipitate proteins…Tannins themselves are found principally in the bark, leaves and immature fruit of a wide range of plants. They form complexes with proteins and other plant polymers such as polysaccharides. It is thought that the role of tannins in nature is one of plant defence: they have an astringent, aversive taste that is off-putting to wannabe herbivores.” (

Experiments have shown that tannins cause the release of a neurotransmitter, serotonin, and that high levels of serotonin can cause headaches, usually in people susceptible to migraines.  This does not explain why people who do not get migraines may suffer from RWH.  People who are sensitive to tannins should also get headaches from tea, chocolate, soy, and walnuts, but very few people complain about headaches from these foods.  People who believe they are sensitive to tannins should look for red wines that are naturally lower in tannins, such as Gamay and Pinot Noir.


Tyramine, may indeed be a major player in RWH syndrome. Tyramine is an amine that is produced naturally from the breakdown of protein as food ages. More specifically it is formed by the decarboxylation (a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide) of the amino acid tyrosine. It is found in aged, fermented, and spoiled foods. Everyday foods we consume including aged cheeses, overripe and dried fruit, sauerkraut, soy, and many processed foods contain high levels of tyramine. Tyramine is suspected of inducing migraine headaches in about 40% of migraine sufferers, according to Dr. Freitag.

Dr. Lynn Gretkowski, co-founder of states that tyramine could be the cause of RWH. Two years ago, she told The Wine Spectator, “Tyramine is thought to be a vassal active substance that causes the dilation and contraction of blood vessels – the squeezing and relaxation component of headaches”  (Wine Spectator, May 31, 2009).  She goes on to say that younger wines and wines that have not been extensively racked or filtered will tend to have higher rates of tyramine. Not all wine has the same level of tyramine present so not all red wine causes RWH symptoms.

However, tyramine has not yet been definitely proven as the source of the Red Wine Headache either.

Advice for RWH Sufferers

Dr. Freitag also suffers from RWH and, like many other RWH sufferers, states that he can drink some red wines and not others. Generally for him, California reds are okay, but only certain French wines will not cause him to have a roaring headache.  Other sufferers have told him that they can only drink French wines. Dr. Freitag advises that if you really love red wine then test one by drinking about half a glass. If it’s going to give you a headache, it should occur within about 15 minutes. If that wine seems to be okay, then only drink 2 glasses at most and keep a diary for future reference.

(The above post is an altered version of my article, “The Causes of Red Wine Headaches,” first published a year ago on

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