The Grape Escape: Variety vs. varietal, Pedants vs. poseurs

Sep 22, 2010 at 5:00 am

Overheard in a wine bar: “This is a delicious varietal.”


Let’s take on another fancy wine word this week, following up on my recent dissertation about “oenophile,” the sniffy term we use for “wine connoisseur” when we need something snobbier than “geek.”

“Varietal” is an old botanical word that has become trendy as a new wine word, but unfortunately, a lot of people have picked it up without being completely clear on what it means.

It’s fairly simple, so let’s learn to talk as the experts do: In wine talk, “variety” is a sub-category of a wine grape’s species. Most classic wines are squeezed from grapes of the species Vitis vinifera, which includes more than 1,000 varieties, ranging from familiar grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, to more offbeat varieties like Pineau d’Aunis, Ribolla Gialla or Rkatsiteli, just to name a few.

Notice how I’m saying “variety” and “varieties” here? Yes, boys and girls, “variety” is a noun. Conjunction Junction, want a glass of wine?

Now let’s look at a bottle of California wine. Hmm, it’s made 100 percent from the Cabernet Sauvignon variety. It’s a varietal wine! This Bordeaux is blended from Cabernet and Merlot. It’s a varietal blend!

Any English majors in the audience? I’ll bet you’ve got it now: When it comes to grapes, “variety” is a noun. “Varietal” is an adjective.

Does any of this matter? Well, not really, not unless you’re a wine writer. And I’d frankly never snob on a civilian for mixing it up through lack of knowledge.

But now and then, you’ll see a wine snob Twittering and cooing over his favorite varietal. If you’re going to try to show off, you should really get it right.