What Is a Varietal? Definition and Meaning in the Wine World

Published September 13, 2022
Red Grapes With Wineglass On Table At Field

Have you ever been browsing the shelves at the wine shop and heard the word, varietal, thrown around? You might be wondering what exactly they are talking about. Here's your 101 on grape varietals to bring you into the loop.

What Exactly Is a Varietal?

When talking wine, the term varietal refers to the type of grape. Wines are either blends of numerous varieties of grapes or single-varietals. Typically, you would use the word variety or varieties when referring to the actual type of fruit and the word varietal when referring to the type of wine. When drinking a single-varietal wine, you taste a straightforward expression of the grape characteristics and the terroir, whereas a blend of different grape varieties is a custom combination made by the winemaker to express a particular regional style or creative compilation.

What Are Some Common Wine Varietals?

While there are many grape varieties made into blends, there are also many single-varietal wines. Certain grapes have a history of being blended, while others are often left on their own. A few single-varietals that are commonly found are pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, chardonnay, and pinot gris.

How to Know if It's a Single-Varietal

Wine labeling is confusing to say the least. It's best to break it down into New World and Old World wines when trying to decipher what exactly is in the bottle. An Old World wine label will most often list a region or appellation, like Bourgogne or Châteauneuf-du Pape. In this case, you would need to know that a red wine from Burgundy (Bourgogne) is most likely going to be a single-varietal of pinot noir, whereas a red wine from Châteauneuf-du Pape is a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault, and perhaps a few other varieties. These grapes may or may not be listed on the back of the bottle.

A New World wine will most often list the varietal on the front of the label, like chardonnay, chenin blanc, or zinfandel. If it is a blend of different grape varieties, the wine is often given a name by the winemaker or estate and the grape varieties may or may not be listed on the back. As you can see, it's not the most linear labeling system. However, if you know some of the clues to look for, you'll find a single-varietal wine easy enough. If not, no sweat! Just ask your local wine shop and they'll guide you in the right direction.

Single-Varietals and Their Varying Percentages

To complicate things further, single-varietals aren't always 100% of that one type of grape. Eye-roll, right? It varies country to country and region to region, each creating their own laws that dictate minimum amounts to call it a single-varietal. In the United States, only 75% of a wine must be the primary grape for it to be called such. So, a chardonnay could also include 25% of other grape varieties, yet the wine could be called a chardonnay. Oregon makes wineries adhere to a bit stricter rules, maintaining that 90% of a wine needs to be the primary grape unless the grapes are commonly blended to create a particular style. The EU is also a bit stricter with their laws, requiring a wine to contain at least 85% of a particular varietal to be labelled as such.

Exploring Varietals

Searching out single-varietals is a great way to really get to know a grape. Once you become familiar with a certain varietal profile, you'll start to be able to pick it out in blends and understand what characteristics it adds to the blended style.

What Is a Varietal? Definition and Meaning in the Wine World