What’s a varietal?

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Image:  Heidi Butzine

     There are myriad varieties of grapes and blends used to make wines in the world.  So what exactly is a varietal?  Varietal is the term used to indicate that the wine is made from at least 75% of one type of grape (Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay).  Some wines are blends of different grape varieties and should be specified on the label, preferably with the percentages of each grape type blended in the wine. 

       So why does all of this matter?  Well, until you open a bottle of wine, you want to know what you’re going to be drinking.  This lets you know what the wine is made of and it helps you begin the process of identifying the personality of the wine. 

       Also, keep in mind that wines are categorized two different ways – by the variety of grape(s) used to make the wine and what region the wine was grown in.  The regions are referred to as appellations.  Most European wines are referred to by their appellations.  Why?  Given the history of winemaking in Europe, wine appellations have long-established reputations for the grape varieties that grow best in those regions.

       Wine aficionados can often tell what grape or grapes are used just by knowing the appellation.  For example, in Italy, Nebbiolo is grown in Barolo and Barbaresco, and Chianti is made from the Sangiovese grape variety.  In France, Burgundy is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot are amongst the well known.

       Outside of Europe, wines are more likely to be referred to by the type of grape they are made from.  This is mostly true for varietals and is also true for some wines that use more than one type of grape such as Cabernet-Merlot.  As more of the New World wines continue to build their legacies, more appellations are gaining notoriety for growing particular grapes.  Australia’s Hunter Valley is known for its Shiraz, Willamette Valley in Oregon is known for Pinot Noir and many of California’s Napa Valley appellations are recognized for Cabernet-based red wines.

       While the art of wine making is impacted by the appellation, terroir and wine production techniques, a varietal wine also says that the personality of the wine is reflective of the true characteristics of the grape.  So when you’re in the wine shop and you see a Cabernet Sauvignon, you will know to expect those flavors and aromas of black cherry, plum, and currants.  As for that Sauvignon Blanc you’ve picked, you know that this grape will feature those herbal, grassy tones that play nicely with the salmon you’re making.  Next time you’re buying a bottle of wine, see how you can apply this knowledge to help you make your selection!

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