People who are new to fine wine tasting often report that the labelling of the wine can be confusing; with different terms making it hard to understand a wine’s characteristics.
One of the expressions often seen on wine bottles is ‘varietal’. In this article we shed a bit of light on the meaning of the term, its history and the most popular wine varietals. Read until the end to become an expert and impress your friends at the next dinner party.
What does varietal mean in relation to wine?
Wines are described as either varietal or blended. Although it sounds similar, varietal does not mean variety. A varietal wine is one that’s made from a single grape variety and bears the name of that grape. For a wine to be considered varietal, it has to contain at least 85% of the wine grape listed on its label (75% in the USA). In contrast, a blended wine is one that contains a mix of two or more different grape varieties.
History of wine varietals
The term first came into general use in California following Prohibition. It allowed consumers to gain precise information about the grapes used to make the wine they were purchasing. This system proved popular and quickly spread to other New World Wines. It has also become common to use it for European wines, although typically they will also include further information on the region and even the vineyard where the grapes were grown.
There are several factors which can influence the flavour of varietal wines, so the same varietal will not always taste the same. The growing conditions, the method the winemaker has used in the production and the storage process can all affect the flavour, which is part of what makes wine tasting such a varied experience. However, each grape has its own varietal characteristics and a wine that displays the typical flavours and aromas of the named grape is often described as being ‘varietally true’.
What are wine types?
Wine is generally made from either white or black grapes, but as we already mentioned there are other factors which affect the final product. A wine that has been aged, for instance, will taste completely different to a new wine. Just as, a wine made from a single variety would taste different compared to a blend.
When you go to any wine store you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of different wines from different regions, producers and so on. However, every wine (whether varietal or blended) will be part of one of the wine types. Types are different from varietals. They are essentially the categories that wines can be divided into depending on their colour or flavour profile. In general, there are seven wine types.
Red wine is made from black grapes. It gets its hue from letting the grape juice ferment with the grape skins. The colour of red wine can vary from light ruby to deep oxblood. This also has an impact on the tannins, which give the dry mouthfeel you get with particularly bold reds.
Light-bodied red wines are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity, some of great varietal examples of this type are Pinot Noir and Gamay. Medium-bodied reds, such as Merlot and Côtes du Rhône, have moderate alcohol levels and tannins. Their flavour profile also features a blend of dark fruits. Full-bodied reds are much higher in alcohol, with bold tannins and notes of spices and black fruits. Exemplary varietal wines that meet this description are Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
White can be made from either white or black grapes, which might sound confusing, but let us explain. In contrast to red wine, white wine is fermented without the grape skins, which results in a paler colour and lower tannins. The flavour profile of white wines can range from crisp and zesty to buttery.
Light-bodied whites are crisp and higher in acidity with a citrusy to herbaceous character. Examples of varietals with this profile are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Full-bodied white wines taste bolder and creamier. Usually they are aged in oak barrels which contributes to their stronger flavour profile. One of the most popular wine varietals of this type is Chardonnay.
Rosé is made like red wine from black grapes fermenting with the skins, but after a short period of time the skins are removed. This results in a beautiful blush colour, low tannins and a flavour that’s easy to pair with different meals. Rosé wine can be made from any variety of black grapes and the exact flavour and colour will depend on the varietal and the region where the wine was made.
Orange is not the most accurate term for this type of wines because their colour can range from deep gold to light straw. Their flavour also has nothing to do with the citrus fruit. Essentially, “orange” wines are made in the same style as rosé, but with white grapes instead of black. The grape juice ferments with the skins for a short period of time, allowing the tannins to develop, but retaining the crisp taste of white wines.
Similarly to rosé, orange wine can vary in taste depending on the grapes used and the country it was made in, but it can taste sour, tannic or dry with notes of honey, ripe apples or even wood.
Sparkling wines are any wines that contain carbonation. They can be white, rosé or even red. The bubbles usually occur naturally as a result of fermentation.
The most popular sparkling wine is Champagne, which is produced from white grapes in the Champagne region of France. Prosecco is another popular sparkling white wine of Italian origin. Although rare, there are sparkling reds as well, one of the popular ones being Lambrusco.
Dessert wines are much sweeter than other wine types. They are usually served after a meal to accompany other sweet foods, hence their name. These wines are made from ripe or late harvested grapes which have a higher sugar content. Dessert wines can be either white or red depending on the grapes they’re made from. White dessert wines are normally served chilled to bring out their freshness, while reds are served closer to room temperature. Moscato is one of the most popular dessert wine varietals.
Fortified wine is any wine that contains an addition of other distilled spirits. The most commonly used one being brandy. It’s higher in alcohol and sugar, which is why it’s usually served at the end of a meal. Due to their overly-sweet character, they don’t have to be paired with food and are typically served with a variety of chocolates, nuts or cheese. Popular types of fortified wines include Por, Sherry and Marsala.
Most Popular Wine Varietals
There is a vast range of wine varietals for the newcomer connoisseur to discover. There are more than 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world and of them has its own varietal wine. Out of all of them, however, only a few dozen are acclaimed and have achieved widespread popularity. Some of the most common wine varietals are:
- Blanc de Blancs – a varietal Champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes.
- Blanc de Noirs – white or rosé Champagne made from dark grapes, particularly Pinot Noir grapes.
- Cabernet Franc – red wine grape used to make an earlier-maturing red wine with lower level of tannins. A light to medium-bodied varietal with herbaceous aromas.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – a full-bodied red wine with intense fruity flavours and great depth that improves with ageing. Cabernet spends between 15 to 30 months ageing in oak barrels, which adds toasty notes of cedar and vanilla.
- Champagne – the most famous sparkling wine that must come from the Champagne region; south west of France. Champagne can range in taste from fruity and full-bodied with notes of burnt caramel to light and citrusy and everything between those.
- Chardonnay – considered one of the world’s most popular varietals, it ranges from clean and crisp to full of complex flavours with notes of honey, spices and hazelnut. A fine Chardonnay usually has a balance between acidity, fruit and texture.
- Chenin Blanc – a white wine from the Loire region with fresh floral character. Depending on the region that the grapes were grown in it can be dry or off-dry (sweeter) in style.
- Gamay – fruity red wine from Beaujolais, France. Low in alcohol with bright acidity, this varietal is meant to be drunk soon after bottling.
- Gewürztraminer – a white German wine with a distinct flavour profile that’s rich in spicy aromas and can range from dry to sweet. It’s a popular wine pairing for Asian cuisine.
- Merlot – a smooth, mellow red wine with medium to full body. Takes well to ageing in oak barrels. Some of the world’s most prized wines are Merlot varietals or blends.
- Pinot Gris – also known as Pinot Grigio, this is a lightly perfumed white wine with low acidity. It’s often more colourful than other white wines.
- Pinot Noir - a delicate, smooth red wine made from the world famous grape of the same name grown in Burgundy and more recently California. It can be light to medium-bodied with rich complexity.
- Port – popular fortified wine from the Douro region in Portugal. Red and mostly sweet in character, it can vary in styles including Vintage, Tawny, Ruby or Aged.
- Riesling – the classic white wine grape variety from Germany, known for producing a floral perfumed wine. Depending on where it’s made the wine can be from crisp to bone-dry, luscious and sweet to full-bodied with spicy notes.
- Sauvignon Blanc – a refreshing white wine, known for its herbal, grassy flavour. Light to medium-bodied, Sauvignon Blanc is a popular alternative for Chardonnay and traditionally served with shellfish.
- Zinfandel – a red wine with a spicy flavour. Zinfandel can be light and fruity to bold and intense with notes of raspberry and plum. It’s the most popular wine grape grown in California.
Selecting a good varietal
Anyone who has spent time browsing wines in a supermarket knows there is a vast range of price and quality even for wines of the same varietal. Ways of discovering the best of each can range from choosing a selection from a shelf to touring the vineyards of a region. To ensure you get the best wine for a special occasion choose better wines from Mr. Wheeler. We work closely with vineyards across the globe; many of them being small, family run businesses. We are constantly on the lookout for new examples, ensuring we are choosing better wines for our customers to experience. The labels on each wine we sell clearly display the varietal as well as a wealth of other information and we are always happy to help if further explanation is required. With our help, you are certain to find the very best wines.