Wine 101: Variety vs. Varietal and the Grapes That They Are Made Of

by Taryn Lachter

Let’s talk about grapes, baby! 

You’ll hear a couple of words used when discussing wine and their grapes that sound the same but are different: variety and varietal.

The grape variety is the actual type of grape, as in the scientific species - like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Let’s talk about grapes, baby! 

You’ll hear a couple of words used when discussing wine and their grapes that sound the same but are different: variety and varietal.

The grape variety is the actual type of grape, as in the scientific species – like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. The word varietal is used to describe a wine that is made of exclusively one grape or is dominated by one grape. If a red wine is 85% Chardonnay, it is a Chardonnay varietal, even though there is 15% of something else in there. 

To be considered a varietal, the wine must be made of at least 75% of that specific grape. Think of it this way: variety is a noun (the grape itself) and varietal is an adjective (describing the wine by the grapes in it.)

When discussing grape varieties, it’s helpful to start with the most common ones, otherwise known as the 6 Noble Grapes. These are the most popular grapes and they take up the most vineyard space around the world in all of the major wine regions. However, there are over 10,000 grape varieties that we know of, which means the number of wine varietals that do exist and will exist is essentially limitless. It’s really helpful to know which grapes you like and you don’t like because knowing the characteristics and flavor profiles of the grapes themselves will help you understand the nature of the wine they’ll be made into. 

In the Old World regions (think Italy, Spain, France, and just generally Europe), a wine is named for the region in which it was produced. You’ll find more of the varietal names in the New World (think Australia, Chile, the United States) so it will be named for the grape and where it came from, but unlike the Old World, it’s not necessarily required to have the geographical region. Many US winemakers have creative names for their wines or just use their winery name, and you’ll see things like “Napa Cabaret” or “Finger Lakes Riesling” as many times the region lets you know how the wine was produced. 

As you start (or continue) your wine journey, spend time looking at labels and understanding where a wine comes from. Try different varieties of grapes from different areas to get a better idea of the qualities you prefer in your wine. You might like a Cabernet from Napa but not from France – much of winemaking has to do with the method as well as the type of grape. 



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