February 22, 2008

Wine Words: The Difference Variety and Varietal

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.

Scott Rosenbaum is director of operations for the International Wine Center and wine buyer for the retailer DrinkUpNY.

by philip · February 22, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Snooth does this too. But my question is at what point does the fact that everyone makes the mistake change whats actually correct?

We misuse words all the time. “Unbelievable” doesnt mean ‘great’, it means ‘i dont believe you’. “Awesome” has religious origins; to be in awe of something. But at this point no one uses them correctly, so their definitions may as well get changed.

by mark · February 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm

“New York Chablis”! I’d love to see a picture of that bottle.

by Scott · February 22, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Mark,

“New York Chablis” might seem like a contradiction of terms and a search on Snooth doesn’t turn up anything, but type the phrase in Wine-Searcher and you get 50 or so hits. The Kosher producer Kedem still makes a Chablis produced in New York State

by philip · February 22, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Mark – i’m here to your rescue: http://www.snooth.com/search/franzia+chablis/1/1/0/125/

Franzia’s “made in america” Chablis. Its about $10 for a gallon or so. Comes in a box and, before anyone knocks it, is the world’s highest selling wine brand.

Good for sangria.

by Andrew · February 23, 2008 at 11:42 am

This confuses a lot of people, especially when the line between what is a grape, and what is a geographic region. Chablis originally meant a wine from the Chablis region of France, but is marketed as a generic word for Chardonnay for many American wines. A lot of people think that Chablis and Burgundy are types of grapes. Haven’t made Sangria for awhile, but I always used Rossi ‘Burgundy’ in the gallon jug bottle for best results.

by Dan · February 23, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Thanks, Scott. Good summary. Last week I was able to make a trade for an old bottle of Larkmead from the 1930′s which was labeled “Fine Larkmead Wine, California Burgundy.” It came from an auction lot that Joel Peterson (owner, founder of Ravenswood) acquired and we are going to taste it in the weeks to come. No one knows what the “variety” is, so when the team of experts get together, will let you know.

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