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?
The 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.”
“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.