What Is a Varietal Wine?

Varietal wines are predominantly made from a single grape variety, with much smaller quantities of other wines. They typically display the grape variety's name on the wine label, giving the variety more prominence than the wine’s region of origin. Examples of varietal wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, each offering distinct flavors and aromas.

Varietal wines are a recent development in the history of winemaking. Until the 20th century, winemakers did not foreground the character of the grape variety, instead focusing on region or winemaking techniques. But New World winemakers moved away from potentially confusing regional labeling to a wine varietal system to make wine buying easier.

In this article, we’ll explore varietal wines, their history, regulation, and how they compare with the concept of terroir.

Wine Variety and Wine Varietals: What’s the Difference?

The terms “variety” and “varietal” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Grape variety refers to the specific type of grape used in the winemaking process. There are over a thousand wine grape varieties globally.

Varietal wine, in contrast, refers to wine labeled and marketed by the dominant grape variety used in its production, emphasizing the grape's character and showcasing the specific flavor and aroma profiles it imparts to the wine. 

For example, a bottle labeled “Pinot Noir” is a varietal wine, mainly made from Pinot Noir grapes. Pinot Noir varietal wine is known for its red fruit, flower, and spice aromas.

A more exotic example might be a Viognier wine, a wine varietal made predominantly from Viognier grapes. This variety is indigenous to the Rhône Valley in France and is renowned for its floral and apricot characteristics and often a hint of spice.

In contrast, Château Mouton-Rothschild is a famed non-varietal wine from Bordeaux, France. Unlike varietal wines, it is labeled by its estate and appellation, Pauillac, rather than the grape varieties used in the blend. 

Château Mouton-Rothschild wine is composed of a several grape varieties native to the Bordeaux region, including Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The exact proportions vary annually based on the character of the vintage, but Cabernet Sauvignon usually takes the lead. Despite the lack of specific grape variety labeling, an experienced wine enthusiast will understand the grape varieties from the appellation, even though they may not know the exact constituents.

The History of Wine Varietals

Varietal wines are a relatively new concept in the long history of wine. For centuries, Old World wines were known and classified by their region of origin rather than by the grape varieties used.

However, the mid-20th century saw a shift in this perspective, primarily led by winemakers in New World regions like California, Australia, and South Africa. These winemakers began labeling their wines by grape variety to distinguish them in an increasingly global market.

The pioneering Robert Mondavi Winery in California was among the first to champion this approach. Mondavi started labeling wines with the varietal name in the 1960s, a revolutionary concept at the time. For instance, instead of a generic “red wine” label, the bottle would state “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Merlot.”

Similarly, in Australia, Penfolds Grange played a significant role in promoting varietal labeling. Penfolds Grange, made primarily from Shiraz wine grapes, elevated the status of Australian wines and brought global recognition to the potential of wine produced with Shiraz.

This new approach was embraced by consumers, who found it simpler to choose wine based on recognizable grape varieties rather than obscure regional names. The success of varietal labeling in the New World led to its adoption in many Old World regions, creating a global trend towards varietal wines that continues today.

How Are Varietal Wines Regulated?

Varietal wines are regulated by laws and traditions that differ from one region to another. In France, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system governs wine production. Although it places a higher emphasis on the region of production than on the grape variety, the AOC system also regulates the use of variety labeling on French varietal wines. 

A wine labeled with a grape variety, such as “Chardonnay,” must contain at least 85% Chardonnay. However, varietal labeling is more common in Vin de Pays wines (country wines), a classification below AOC, to cater to international consumers who may be more familiar with grape varieties.

In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates wine production. For a wine to be labeled as a varietal, it must contain at least 75% of that specific grape. This requirement increases to 85% for wines from Oregon, demonstrating how regulations can vary even within a single country.

Wine Varietal vs. Terroir

The wine world is divided into two camps: those prioritizing the grape variety and producing varietal wines, and those emphasizing where the grape is grown, known as the terroir. 

The concept of terroir is deeply rooted in the French winemaking tradition. Terroir is the complete set of local conditions where a particular vine is grown, including factors like the soil, climate, altitude, and even the local yeast populations that influence the fermentation process. French winemakers believe these factors imbue the wine with a unique taste and character that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

For instance, let’s consider the region of Burgundy. The Pinot Noir wine grapes grown in the Côte de Nuits, known for its limestone-rich soils and cool climate, produce wines that are elegant, complex, and markedly different from Pinot Noir grown elsewhere. The same variety grown in different vineyards within Burgundy can produce very different wines, leading to the region’s intricate classification system.

On the other hand, in regions like California and Australia, there is a stronger focus on the grape variety itself. Winemakers believe that the variety is the primary driver of a wine’s flavor, and the terroir plays a supporting role. A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, with its full body and rich fruit flavors, showcases the characteristics of the variety, even though the region’s warm climate and diverse soils undeniably contribute to the wine’s final profile.

Neither wine varietal nor terroir is inherently superior — both approaches can produce exceptional wines. Many winemakers strive for a balance between the two, seeking to express the unique qualities of the grape variety while showcasing the distinctive characteristics of their terroir. 

Grape Varieties Used in Making Varietal Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s most popular red wine varietals, known for its full-bodied, complex profile. Originating from the Bordeaux region of France, it is now produced globally, with notable examples coming from regions such as Napa Valley in the USA and Coonawarra in Australia. Cabernet Sauvignon wine is often characterized by robust tannins and flavors of blackcurrant, plum, and spices, with aging often introducing notes of cedar and vanilla.

Merlot

Merlot is another red varietal wine that, like Cabernet Sauvignon, finds its roots in Bordeaux. It is softer and more rounded than Cabernet Sauvignon, with lower tannins and a plush, velvety texture. Merlot wines carry flavors of ripe red and black fruits like cherries and blackberries, along with hints of chocolate and herbs.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a red varietal wine that originates from Burgundy, France. It is renowned for its delicate, nuanced character, with a lighter body and softer tannins than many other red wines. The flavor profile of Pinot Noir can range from red fruits like strawberries and raspberries in cooler climates to darker fruits and spices in warmer regions.

Syrah/Shiraz

Syrah, known as Shiraz in Australia and South Africa, is a bold red varietal wine with a full body, high tannins, and intense flavors. It showcases flavors of dark fruits like blackberries and blueberries, often accompanied by spicy, peppery notes. The style can vary greatly from Old World elegance and subtlety (Syrah) to New World richness and intensity (Shiraz).

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a white varietal wine that is versatile and adaptable. Wines made with Chardonnay grapes range from crisp and mineral in cooler climates (such as Chablis in France) to rich, buttery, and oaky in warmer regions (like California). Flavors can range from green apples and citrus in cooler regions to tropical fruits, vanilla, and honey in warmer areas.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a white varietal wine known for its high acidity, fresh, crisp character, and distinctive aroma profile. Sauvignon Blanc showcases flavors of fruits like green apple, pear, and gooseberry, along with herbaceous notes of grass and bell pepper. Noteworthy regions include the Loire Valley in France and Marlborough in New Zealand.

Riesling

Riesling is a white varietal wine originating in the Rhine region of Germany. It is appreciated for its floral aromas and high acidity, balanced with residual sugar. Depending on the region and winemaking style, Riesling can be bone dry, off-dry, or sweet, with flavors ranging from green apple and lime to peach and honey.

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

Pinot Grigio, also known as Pinot Gris, is a white varietal wine with two main styles. The Italian style (Pinot Grigio) is typically light-bodied, crisp, and fresh, with green apple, pear, and citrus flavors. The French style (Pinot Gris, especially from Alsace) tends to be fuller-bodied, richer, and more aromatic, with flavors of ripe tropical fruits and honey.