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Explainer

I Say Variety, You Say Varietal, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Wine

It’s become common to say varietal in place of variety. What happened?

Rachel Signer By December 9, 2021
illustration of variety and varietal lettering
Illustration by Jess Cruickshank

If you’ve ever heard a sommelier mention their favorite varietal, or discuss how Pinot Noir is a difficult varietal to grow, and a little song has played in your head — you mean variety, not varietal — then you’re already aware of an extremely common misuse in wine lingo: confusing variety and varietal. 

In case you’re wondering, “variety” is the noun, and “varietal” is the adjective. So Merlot is a grape variety, but a wine that’s made from Merlot is a varietal wine.

But even wine writers are guilty of erroneously using varietal as a noun. Some people know it’s not correct, but use it anyway. In her book “Wine. All the Time: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking,” Marissa A. Ross writes that “Varietal is a word people in wine use for a single type of grape.” Below, she elaborates: “*Some people say the plural varietals and use varieties. I feel there can be varieties of anything and take poetic license with varietals to make it wine-grape specific.” 

Ross is far from alone. Many people use varietal this way, although it is best used to describe a wine made from a single grape: a varietal wine. 

How did an adjective begin masquerading all around the wine industry as a noun? And should wine lovers worry about this slippage, and attempt to correct it, putting the words back in their original places? Or do we — tomato, tom-ah-to — call the whole thing off? 

The crossover

According to Australian linguistics professor Howard Manns, the case of varietal and variety becoming confused is one of many such functional shifts or conversions that commonly occur in English. He explains that, over time, we often see nouns become verbs, as in ship or nail, while verbs like report and walk become nouns. Adjectives can also turn into verbs, as has happened with dirty and empty.

Varietal being used in place of variety is, according to Manns, a less common instance of adjective to noun shift. But this does happen — consider, for example, the adjective “poor” becoming the collective noun “the poor.” 

Originally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, varietal was used broadly as a general biological, botanical, and mineral term, from Charles Darwin’s writings in the 1860s through the first half of the twentieth century. The attachment of varietal to wine specifically seems to have emerged in the 1940s in the U.S. But over the next few decades, varietal began shifting from adjective to noun, again mostly in the United States, and people began calling single varieties varietals.

Does it matter?

For wine retailers, correcting people on language is a very delicate matter. At Washington D.C.’s Domestique Wine, “We experience people misusing varietal and variety all the time,” says the shop’s director of operations, Meri Lugo. But the staff have learned to ignore those slip-ups, along with other wine lingo that gets misused, like “dry.” 

“As wine folks, it’s incumbent upon us to understand and use the correct terminology, but also to wield that knowledge responsibly and kindly,” says Lugo, adding that “it’s not a priority for us to ensure someone is using a specific term correctly, as long as we can understand one another.” 

When customers say “I love this varietal,” is it correct? No. But do retail staff know exactly what the customer is trying to say? Yes, absolutely. In the end, the word grape tends to prevail at Domestique, as well, says Lugo.

“The varietal ship has already sailed; we’ve lost that battle, I’m afraid,” she says. 

Could this be a wine industry-centric occurrence? Maybe, for whatever reason, the word varietal sounds better or smarter and therefore wine professionals have taken it up? What happens in the worlds of beer and spirits? 

“As wine folks, it’s incumbent upon us to understand and use the correct terminology, but also to wield that knowledge responsibly and kindly … it’s not a priority for us to ensure someone is using a specific term correctly, as long as we can understand one another.” 

Confusion elsewhere

The term varietal does get used to describe beer ingredients including hops and barley, and in cider to describe apples,” says Matthew Curtis, publisher of Pellicle Magazine and author of the recent book “Modern British Beer.” Curtis points out that among true brewing geeks, hops varieties can be of utmost importance. 

In the world of mezcal, where the emphasis is on small-batch, site-specific distillation, the word variety is often written on the label itself to denote the type of agave. But mezcal is unique within the world of spirits, where blending is the norm.

Wine is complicated — and it seems that the lingo involved in wine causes people anxiety, much more than with spirits or beer. Wine’s greatest achievement is its diversity: the incredible wealth of different varieties across the globe, changing in name and character from one hillside to the next in the Old World, displaying unique aspects of their clones in the New World, and providing a lifetime’s worth of exploration. But this is also partly what makes it so confusing to drinkers. 

Variety is definitely the spice of life. But if using it makes people more comfortable talking about wine, and therefore more able to enjoy it, then, varietal it is. 

Rachel Signer is the author of You Had Me At Pet-Nat, named as one of 2021’s Best Wine Books by the New York Times.