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What Is A Varietal

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | May 20, 2012

A varietal is a wine that is labeled to indicate the grape varieties used in the making of the wine. It is important to remember that varietal wines were promoted and rigorously developed by the United States wine industry. Prior to the 1960s, United States wines were mostly labeled Chablis, Rhine Wine, Burgundy, et cetera. The development of varietal wines through varietal labeling occurred as a direct result of quality improvements in United States wine. This has led to the finest United States wines typically being varietal in nature.

Varietal wines can be identified from other wines by the information found on the wine label. The telltale sign of a varietal wine is a grape's varietal name. Varietal wine labels typically have the grape's varietal name in a central location with special emphasis placed on the varietal name. Grape varietal names include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, Petite Sirah, Syrah, et cetera. It is important to note that the actual varietal name does not describe the character of the wine itself. Additional information such as appellation of origin and vintage are important details also found on the labels of varietal wine.

For a wine to be labeled as a varietal, specific criteria must be met. Different countries have different legal standards concerning the production and labeling of varietal wine.

For the United States, labeling includes:

  • For Vitis Vinifera (European varietal) wines, 75% of the wine must be made of the variety reported on the label.
  • For Vitis labrusca (Native American varietal) wines, 51% of the wine must be made of the variety reported on the label.
  • The balance of grape varieties do not have to be named, but if the wine is labeled with an AVA designation, 85% of all grapes must come from the reported AVA.
  • Appellation of Origin indicating where the reported grape variety was grown.
  • Alcohol content information.
  • Declaration of sulfites
  • The name and address of the bottler or importer.
  • The country of origin of the wine.
  • The net contents of the wine container.
  • A health warning statement.

Additional varietal wine label information may include:

  • A vintage date.
  • If the wine was Estate Bottled.
  • Brand name information.

The quality and quantity of United States wines dramatically increased with the adaptation of varietal labeling. By reporting the variety used in the making of the wine, vintners effectively cut out the use of sub-standard table, juice and raisin grapes originally found in United States wine. As the quality of United States wines began to increase, wine consumers began to purchase more domestic wine. An increased demand in domestic wine led to vintners realizing the value of developing vineyards of wine grapes rather than table juice grapes. Vineyards were developed with Vitis vinifera varieties that were unknowingly obtained from disease infected vineyards. Due to the work of countless individuals, healthy Vitis vinifera vineyards were soon developed and the quality and quantity of United States wine continued to rise.

As the quality and quantity of United States wines grew, other New World wine producing countries began to take notice. The end result of varietal wine labeling in the United States led to an expanding market as well as a new paradigm for the wine industry. Various New World wine producers emulated the United States and now produce varietal wines. This has paid off as United States wine consumers already familiar with varietal labeling began purchasing varietal wines produced by foreign countries. The end result is that the new paradigm of varietal wine labeling has been a success. By producing varietal wines, New World wine producing countries have significantly expanded their wine businesses. Varietal wine labeling is now the de facto standard for New World wine producing countries. New World wine producing countries include the United States, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and South Africa.

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