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What is a varietal wine?

Categories : Expertise

Varietal wines are made from a single grape variety, which is mentioned on the label. Since the 2000s, varietal wines have been a real hit with consumers, offering an easier approach to tasting for the novice wine lover. However, some professionals and wine lovers are highly critical of these wines, which they feel are modelled on products from the "new world" and deprived of their territorial origin, in other words, their famous terroir.

Appearance of the term "varietal wine" in France

It was in the 1980s that this new term was coined to describe certain wines made from a single grape variety but whose grapes have different geographical origins. In general, these are vins de pays (now IGP wines).

This new category was created by the wine trade. Their demand stemmed from the growing international success of wines organised according to grape variety rather than place of production, more in line with contemporary demand and consumption.

A new step was taken when the European Parliament authorised vins de France (formerly vin de table) to be labelled with the grape variety and vintage. These regulations are designed to help European wines adapt to international markets.

Are varietal and terroir wines really two distinct categories?

You might think that the two categories are mutually exclusive, as a varietal wine cannot claim to be a terroir wine and vice versa. However, the reality of winegrowing is far more complex than this simple distinction.

When you look at French production, but also at European production, you see that there are many appellations that lay claim to a terroir and a grape variety. The most famous case is that of the Burgundy region, which has built its reputation on its terroirs and its two grape varieties: Pinot noir and Chardonnay. But the most telling example is Alsace, where all the appellations d'origine are based on grape varieties and bear their names.

These two examples show that terroir and grape variety can together produce quality wines with a distinctive identity. The question is whether grape variety or terroir should be at the service of the other.