When is a Varietal
not a Varietal and
What is a Varietal Anyway?

by Peter May

All  wines are made from grape varieties. Some are made from a blend of varieties, others from just one. It is these that are called varietal. A varietal wine has the name of just one grape variety on the label, and should contain the fermented juice of just that one grape variety. But in practice other varieties may be present, and that is permitted by law.

    American wine law allows a wine to be labeled as a varietal if it has 75% or more of that variety. For a consumer that's a bit like ordering a sixteen-ounce beef steak and getting 12 ounces of beef and 4 ounces of ham. The background to the ruling probably was meant to recognize that many old vineyards weren't necessarily planted with all the same variety and winemakers with a little wine left over will combine it with another rather than wasting it.

    But there is opportunity for unscrupulous wineries to pad out an expensive variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with a cheap variety. They can turn three bottles of cabernet into four bottles by blending in 25% of other wines. It is surely in the interests of consumers that the regulations be tightened.

    The tone of this article may imply that a varietal is superior to a blend, but that is not so. Some of the greatest wines in the world are blends, in particular the red wines of Bordeaux which can contain Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. At one time Cabernet Sauvignon was considered the best of these and many new world winemakers thought that if the Bordeaux wines were wonderful with 60% Cabernet, then a 100% Cabernet would be even better.

    The reason Bordeaux blends their wine is historical. The wineries grow all their own grapes and having a mix of varieties gives a safety net; if one variety has an unproductive year or suffers illness they can still make wine with the others. Picking is easier as the varieties ripen at different times, and rain during picking won't affect the entire crop. But after generations of making wine the main reason is that the sum of the parts in the blend is greater than the individual. Merlot softens and rounds the hard tannic Cabernet Sauvignon which gives structure, Cabernet Franc gives body and color and Petite Verdot adds dusty spiciness.

    The benefits of blending have not been lost on new world winemakers. The Meritage organization trademarked the name Meritage for US winemakers to use on wines blended from the classic Bordeaux varieties. The name implies Merit and Heritage. The self styled 'Rhone Rangers' are Californian winemakers growing making and blending wines from the classic Rhone varieties of Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier, Moussanne. And they're copying the Rhone habit of blending a little white Viogner in the red Syrah.

    Other winemakers are championing the 'field blend'. They use all the grapes picked from a particular vineyard. Modern DNA testing has shown that old vineyards rarely were planted with just one variety. Many old Zinfandel vineyards contain some Petite Syrah and perhaps some others. Ridge Vineyards have pioneered this style of winemaking for over thirty years and their classic labels always list the percentage of each variety in the wine, even though they could legally call it a varietal.

    Bending usually adds complexity and depth. But it should be clear on the label that the wine is a blend, and thus a varietal should contain 100% of that variety.

    If you have been, thanks for reading.

Ridge shows precise varietal labelling is possible
This label from Ridge shows precise varietal labelling is possible

© Copyright Peter May 2002.

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1 January 2002