posted by Scott in Guest Bloggers, Wine
The grape Cabernet Sauvignon is not a varietal. It isn’t. Sounds strange, right? But neither is Chardonnay or Rkatsitelli (its big in Russian), for that matter. The reason this might sound odd is because so many people use the word “varietal” incorrectly. There is no such thing as a grape varietal. Varietal is an adjective (and sometimes a noun) that describes a wine that is made from a single grape variety. So, Cabernet Sauvignon the grape is a variety, while Cabernet Sauvignon the wine is a varietal. You can see how thing can easily get confused. Of course, you can also call a grape variety a “cultivar,” but most people will have no clue what you’re talking about unless they’re botanists.
The word varietal, as pertaining to wine, was popularized by Frank Schoonmaker in the early 1940’s. Schoonmaker was a tireless promoter of American wine, and, in the days before anyone had ever heard of Napa or Sonoma, he figured the best way to endorse such wines was by grape variety. Thus, a wine made from the Merlot grape would be varietally labeled. This stood in stark contrast to the common practice of the day, generic labeling, which can still be seen today on dusty bottles labeled “Hearty Burgundy” and “New York Chablis.”
Anyway, Schoonmaker’s efforts paid off. The vast majority of New World wines are varietal wines nowadays. This is all fine and well, but when the characteristics of such varietal wines are attributed to the grape variety that produced it, the misuse of the word varietal ensues. When grapes are said to have varietal characteristics, as opposed the characteristics common to the grape’s variety, the word is being used incorrectly. The distinction is subtle, but relevant.
The variety/varietal mix-up is widespread, so there’s no worry if you’ve used the words wrong in the past. Everyone makes the mistake. It is an easy one to make. Now you know better so feel free to correct your friends, or, better yet, the salesperson at your local wine shop.