Varietal is not the spice

It’s “variety.” It’s almost never “varietal.” Stop using “varietal” unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing, and even then consider reconsidering.

Evidence on this blog to the contrary, there aren’t all that many things in the wine world that drive me to tooth-grinding agony. I argue, yes, but I do so from a position of peace and goodwill towards all. It’s the Summer of Love, every day, on oenoLogic.

(Um, what’s that? I’m full of what?)

Anyway, the errant conflation of “variety” and “varietal” is the burr in my craw, the stick in my saddle, the hazelnut and pumpkin syrup in my charred coffee. Herein, a brief tutorial, the better to save the oenologician from the grammatical chafing caused by burr, stick, and venti latte. Pay attention, now.

(No, really. Brief. What’s that? I’m even more full of what?)

Variety – This is the word you want when you’re referring to a grape. Pinot noir is a grape variety, which you may shorten to variety. It is not interchangeable with the word “varietal.” And if you think it might be, start swapping the words in situations not related to grapes and see how far it takes you.

“Starbucks offers a varietal of dessert drinks that may, once, have been in the same room with coffee.”

“There hasn’t been a good varietal show on TV since Hee Haw.”

“I’ve eaten deep-fried whale spleen five nights in a row; it’s time to put a little varietal back in my diet.”

See? Doesn’t work. “Pinot noir is a grape varietal” doesn’t work either. Don’t say it. Don’t write it. Don’t think it. (The oenologician waves his hand.) These are not the droids you’re looking for…

Varietal – The adjectival form of “variety.” It is very nearly the case that the only times you will need to use it are to modify the words “composition” and “character.”

“Sauvignon blanc grown on fertile plains, harvested by machine a month before everyone else and at industrial crop levels, then chaptalized, yeasted, and enzymed, probably doesn’t retain much varietal character despite the desperate attempts of global beverage conglomerates to convince you otherwise by putting cute animal drawings on the labels.”

“The varietal composition of a super-Tuscan is irrelevant in comparison to the speed-to-overcompensation ratio of the modified sports coupe driven by its owner.”

There are other uses along these lines that can be correct, but if it’s not explicitly modifying a word, it is very likely that you’re using it incorrectly.

The trouble comes with the other acceptable use of “varietal,” which is to refer to a single-variety wine, and in which the word can transmogrify into a noun. That is to say: if it’s 100% saperavi, it’s a varietal wine, a varietal saperavi – note that, in both cases, “varietal” is happily nestled in its comforting and familiar position of modification – or, in shorthand, a varietal.

This is the only use of “varietal” in which a missing word-being-modified is acceptable. The only use. (Unless, of course, I’m forgetting one. Which I might be.) The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, is a varietal wine, a/k/a a varietal pinot grigio, a/k/a a varietal, made up of the fermented pressings from P.T. Barnum’s soul. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the other hand, is only very rarely a varietal, but is instead almost always a blend. (Varietal Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be identified, in the absence of directly-sourced knowledge, by the mass of the bottle multiplied by the number of points the wine has received from critics who live in Maryland.)

It would, perhaps, help the ongoing confusion over these terms if even those who understand the differences would attempt to limit their use of the noun form of “varietal” and stick with alternative terms, like “single-variety” or “the first strike of a dumbed-down New World wine nomenclature that’s going to destroy centuries of European winemaking tradition unless we fight it tooth-and-bulldozer, and as long as we ignore that much of Europe has been using varietal designations on their wines for some time now with no deleterious effects for anyone.”

(See what I did there?)


18 Comments

  • Anonymous

    November 2, 2010

    Got it. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Arthur

    November 2, 2010

    That is why I use "cultivar". Sure, it is not as specific like variety (Pinot Noir) and clone (667), but it leaves no room for mistaking a vine for the liquid in a bottle.

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    November 2, 2010

    Not a bad plan.

    Reply
  • vinosseur

    November 3, 2010

    Thank you for this post. I would say that grammar has never been my strength.. Message heard loud and clear ;-)

    Cheers,

    Reply
  • Tobias

    November 3, 2010

    Opting to say monocépage instead makes me feel so cool.

    Hope the echoes of your rant are heard far away.

    Reply
  • Hoke Harden

    November 3, 2010

    You funny.

    And you refudiate well.

    "yeasted and enzymed"??? :^)

    Reply
  • WCVR

    November 3, 2010

    Ack, going to have to go through our blog and correct this ASAP. Thanks for the usage lesson!

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    November 3, 2010

    Hear, bloody hear.
    I avoid, if possible, any use of 'varietal' at all. At any time.
    It's like a dagger in my ear.
    Nice quotes, too, by the way, to illustrate your point.
    GG

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    November 3, 2010

    Vinosseur: I forgive non-native English speakers…though I might have less charity towards my fellow Norwegians, who should know better. ;-)

    Tobais: another good alternative.

    Hoke: sure. A recipe of aroma-directed yeasts and enzymes to get whatever balance between sweet tropicality and pyrazines/faux-pyrazines (yes, I know that's a problematic usage) a particular producer is looking for. Everyone's chasing their take on the original Cloudy Bay cocktail, including Cloudy Bay.

    WCVR: and see, someone sent me an email yesterday saying it was "too late" for this sort of thing. I rest my counter-argument, and thank you.

    GG: admittedly, the examples were more fun than the rant itself.

    Reply
  • Kirsten Lindquist

    November 4, 2010

    Thanks, did not know that! (Love the asides, really, they make it all worthwhile)

    Reply
  • vinosseur

    November 4, 2010

    Thor

    Then I am even more embarrassed to remind you that I am a native English speaker – born in the USA and raised in California! I have only been calling Norway my home for 7 years.
    I didn't pay enough attention in school I guess, or perhaps my English grammar has gotten worse living in a non-native English speaking country :-)

    Skål!

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    November 5, 2010

    Kirsten: great Scandinavian name. I should admit to you that I'm a native Minnesotan, so we have something in common. Love the blog.

    Vinosseur: I don't know that you could call Norway a non-English-speaking country anymore. But OK, if you wish to feel shame no matter how much I try to absolve you — a very Lutheran trait, I must say ;-) — I'm not going to stop you.

    Reply
  • David McDuff

    November 9, 2010

    Very well said, Thor. Really, I couldn't agree more. The abuse of varietal has always been a burr in my craw, as well.

    This does beg the question, though, one already asked but perhaps not received in said manner via Hoke:

    Enzymed? A verb?

    Careful, before it's "too late."

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    November 10, 2010

    Hoke thought I did it deliberately, because that would have been enormously clever of me, and in the great tradition of post-facto revisionism I'm sticking with his interpretation.

    That said, the particular transformation I employed doesn't bother me so much, for reasons that are specific to individuated uses and aren't really worth getting into in a comments section. Over a bottle of wine, one day, maybe. Not here.

    Reply
  • Andrzej Daszkiewicz

    November 28, 2010

    Thor, thank you very much for this post, although I'm afraid it's too late now – I remember seeing somewhere an article stating that the use of "varietal" as a noun had became an acceptable option. Even for a non-native English speaker (but a part-time Minnesotan!) like me it is quite disturbing.

    Greetings from Poland, where we have just had our first Minnesota-like snowfall, with the temperatures coming down fast as well.

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    November 28, 2010

    Wow. Minnesotans coming out of the woodwork on this blog. I feel like I'm running a support group. ;-)

    (I'm actually *in* Minnesota at the moment, remembering why I don't live here anymore.)

    It's not too late, though. See earlier comments. We can change the world, one adjective at a time!

    Reply
  • Fredric Koeppel

    December 14, 2014

    It amazes me that people still post hiding behind “Anonymous.”

    Reply
    • thor iverson

      December 15, 2014

      One particular Anonymous was actually a friend of mine, though. Don’t know who the other was. For a time, I made it pretty difficult to comment here.

      Reply

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