Why do wine makers talk about grape varieties and grape varietals?
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Elizabeth Schneider from the Wine for Normal People podcast because she had a few questions about words used in the wine industry. Here's one of her questions that I thought you might find particularly interesting:
"Given that you also have a science background, I'd love to get your take on the use of the word varietal in wine. Is it a science term? It used to be how wine writers referred to grapes, and now people are using variety instead. Which is right? "
Varietal comes from a famous source! According to the Oxford English Dictionary, varietal was first used by Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species to describe "a distinct variety of plant, animal, or mineral."
See also: 5 Clues to Decoding a Wine Label
In the 1940s, U.S. winemakers started using the word varietal to talk about wines that are mostly made from one variety of grape. For example, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot are varietal wines made from grapes that also go by those names.
Since varietal means "a variety of grape" or a "variety of wine," it's correct to say either "Chardonnay is a varietal that has been popular for many years," or "Chardonnay is a variety [or type] of wine that has been popular for many years." The two terms aren't always interchangeable, but you can accurately use either in a sentence about wine made from one type of grape.
My guess is that it's marketing that is driving the trend Elizabeth describes of wine companies using variety more often these days. Varietal does have a more scientific feel to it, and as the wine industry tries to lure the more casual consumer, it makes sense to move to a less intimidating word such as variety.
See also: 5 Secrets to Great Food and Wine Pairing
"Wine Varietal Glossary." California Wine Club Website. http://www.cawineclub.com/Wine-Varietal-Glossary (accessed February 11, 2014).
"varietal." Oxford English Dictionay, online edition. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/221555?redirectedFrom=varietal#eid (accessed February 11, 2104).
Grapes image courtesy of Shutterstock.