Don’t Judge a Wine by the Grape on Its Label

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Don’t Judge a Wine by the Grape on Its Label

The word “varietal” is among the most misused in wine.

Many people think of it as a synonym for “grape,” as in, “What varietals are in that wine?” Not to be pedantic, but that is wrong. Varietal is not a noun, it is an adjective. One may properly refer to a “varietal wine,” like a cabernet sauvignon or a chardonnay, in which the wine is made with a dominant grape variety.

This distinction pertains directly to our most recent topic, California grenache, in which we had one varietal wine, made entirely out of grenache, and two blends, in which grenache was one of several varieties in the wine.

Here at Wine School, we try not to be sticklers, but we do feel compelled to be accurate, if not exact. This is difficult when considering the leeway that California offers in its labeling rules, which require that a varietal wine contain at least 75 percent of that particular grape. In other words, a wine can still bear the varietal label “grenache” even if other grapes account for 25 percent. But if the blend includes less than 75 percent of grenache, it cannot be called by the name of the grape.

Before 1978, when that rule was enacted, a California wine could be called grenache or pinot noir if it contained just 50 percent of that grape. That offered too much wiggle room for winemakers to add inferior varieties.

Then, the federal government increased the required proportion to 75 percent, with states having an option to raise it even further. In Oregon, the rule is 90 percent, with the exception of cabernet sauvignon, which, because it is historically blended with other grapes, remained at 75 percent.

The Old World, for the most part, did not label its wines varietally, though certainly exceptions are easy to find — Alsace is an example. In France, it is understood that Chablis will taste different than Vouvray does, and those qualities were associated with the places. So no need to label the Chablis as chardonnay and the Vouvray as chenin blanc

Read more at The New York Times