What’s the Difference Between Varietal and Variety?

Varietal or variety?

What makes many wine writers I know crazy?

The misuse of the terms varietal and variety.

I admit I am sure I am one of those wine writers who sometimes mixes them up.

In fact I am so paranoid about getting it wrong that I take pains to avoid both terms unless it’s directly from someone’s mouth or a tech sheet, and these sources are certainly known to be fallible.

So what is the difference?

As the graphic above from Texas Wine Podcast and recently shared on Facebook by Michelle Williams points out,

  • Variety is a noun and refers to the type of grape
  • Varietal is an adjective and refers to the type of wine.

Or to go back to how I remember learning the difference between adjectives and nouns — and how I teach the difference to my college students —

  • Variety is a noun which NAMES the type of grape:
    Merlot is a variety of grape grown around the world.
  • Varietal is an adjective which DESCRIBES the type of wine:
    Merlot is the varietal in this bottle of wine.

in the accompanying thread, much debate ensues in the 73 comments. Certainly in these times, there are more critical issues than the use and misuse of varietal and variety. In fact, one poster says that in Merriam-Webster, the Cambridge Dictionary, and other dictionaries, varietal is both a noun and an adjective. But that does not mean they are synonymous.

According to Randy Caparoso,  the wine industry adopted “varietal” in the 1950s. He says U.C. Davis coined it as a way to delineate wines made primarily from specific grape varieties rather than generic wines. Further, varietal is the word for a grape used in the production of wine, while the word for a grape in the botanical sense is variety aka a cultivar.

This means that the usage “Merlot is a varietal grown around the world” is also correct.

The thread also considered capitalization of grape names: what does and doesn’t get capitalized? This is confusing because different publications have different “styles.” Some do not capitalize anything to do with the type of grape while others capitalize every word. In general, a rule of thumb is if it’s a color, it’s lower case, for example, in Cabernet Franc, both words are capitalized while in Chenin blanc, only the first word.

Just saying: Getting the words, punctuation, spelling, all of it right matters. I do my best. I am my own editor, but I still publish on a deadline and sometimes I’m too tired. I do go back and edit, and when I find errors, or someone points them out, I fix them.

In these trying times, we are all trying to do our best. Rather than worrying too much about these matters of whether others are using varietal and variety correctly or what needs to be capitalized is or isn’t, or the hyphen is in the right place, consider:

Valerie Kaur reminds us that the heart is a muscle and the more we use it, the stronger it becomes.

In the big picture, some words ARE more important than others.

Here’s two words I’m finding very important right now: GO VOTE.

yes I painted this on my garage last week…

Note: October is Blogtober so I’m trying to post every day. It’s also Sobertober, so I’m trying not to include wine, bottle shots, and tasting notes in every post. Finally, it’s MerlotMe and there will be more Merlot coming soon!


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