What Are Wine Varietals?

With even brief exposure to the world of wine, you will quickly encounter the word ‘varietal.’ It may seem like common sense, but do you know the difference between a wine and a varietal?  

Keep reading for the ins and outs of grape and wine varietals, so next time you’re browsing the wine aisle or wine menu, you have the basics under your belt.

Types of red wine and white wine varietals

What is a Varietal Wine?

Let’s start with the definition. ‘Varietal wine’ refers to a wine that is made from one type of grape variety.

For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and Merlot comes from Merlot grapes. When a wine contains just one grape type, it’s known as a varietal. If a wine were to be made up of both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, it would be called a “blend,” but more on that later. 

If your wine has the same name as the grape it’s made from, it’s most likely a varietal, as this means there are no other grapes in the wine.

Varietal vs. Variety

Now that we know what a wine varietal is, did you know there is indeed a difference between ‘variety’ and ‘varietal?’ ‘Variety’ refers to the grape, while “varietal” refers to the wine. 

For example, Pinot Noir wine is the varietal, while the Pinot Noir grapes the wine is made from would be the variety. Many wine lovers often use “varietal” and “variety” interchangeably, which is completely fine, but technically, there is a difference, if only slight!

There’s a bit more to the story, so let’s dive into how it all started. 

History of Varietal Labeling

Varietal labeling dates back to the Old World, popular in Germany and Austria. Unlike New World wines, many Old World Wine regions still classify varietals according to region instead of grapes. 

A Bordeaux wine from the French wine region of the same name can still contain 100% Merlot, although ‘Merlot’ is nowhere on the bottle. 

Wine Varietals vs. Blends

If you’re in France, you may notice that some regional wines are classified as blends, not varietals, which means they are made from more than one grape varietal. For example, many Bordeaux blends are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This means that if you buy a Bordeaux wine, you may or may not have a 100% single varietal wine. 

Other Old World regions, like Spain, Italy, and England, follow similar practices. However, many newer EU regulations require the grape varietal to be specified on the label if the wine contains 85% or more of a single grape type. 

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s see some of the most popular single wine varietals in action! 

Types of Red Wine Varietals

Types of red wine varietals

While there are an estimated 10,000 wine varietals worldwide, we’ve gathered some of our top favorites in the red and white wine categories. 

Here are ten of the most popular red wine varietals. 

1. Cabernet Sauvignon

A full-bodied, peppery wine bursting with red fruits, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up most of Bordeaux wines. With pronounced yet smooth tannins, the mouthfeel of this wine is velvety with a slight pucker.

2. Pinot Noir

Fruit-forward and versatile, this light-bodied red is perfect for barbecue or as an aperitif. Pinot Noir carries intense strawberry and cherry notes without the firm tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon.

3. Merlot

Equally as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot boasts deep blackberry and plum notes. If you’re looking for a juicy, savory wine with a bit more kick when it comes to its alcohol content, Merlot is perfect with hearty meats and decadent chocolate desserts like lava cake. 

4. Grenache

Grenache is prolific as a savory red wine. However, its grapes are often used to make Rosé. This varietal is bright with soft berry flavors and can be found in France, Spain, and Napa Valley. 

5. Syrah

Australia is known for its Syrah, although this dark grape varietal first got its start in France’s Rhone Valley. This savory red is herbaceous, earthy, and acidic, with peppery flavors. 

6. Malbec

Another spicy varietal, Malbec is both savory and jammy with plum, blackberry, and pepper notes. Argentina is particularly famous for its full-bodied Malbec. 

7. Zinfandel

Another great companion for barbecue, Zinfandel is bright, juicy, and spicy with cherry, raspberry, and strawberry notes. This red may seem light and lean at first, but it really packs a punch layered with complexity. 

8. Tempranillo

Fig, blackberry, and earth notes are staples in the Spanish red wine, Tempranillo. This wine is rich and perfect for hearty pasta and meat dishes. 

9. Sangiovese

Medium-bodied and jammy, with strong notes of raspberry and licorice, Sangiovese is known as a blending grape in Chianti and Tuscan wines. But what many don’t realize is that this blue-black grape varietal can stand on its own. 

10. Gamay

Last but not least, Gamay is a light to medium-bodied red wine with low tannins and complex fruit and floral notes. You might even catch undercurrents of herbs with every sip. 

Types of White Wine Varietals

Types of white wine varietals

Move over red wine. There are plenty of popular white wine varietals that stand on their own! 

Here are some of the most popular single-varietal white wines. 

1. Chardonnay

One of the most famous dry white wines, Chardonnay is full-bodied and boasts either tropical notes or buttery caramel textures depending on where it's grown and how it's fermented. Unoaked Chardonnay is usually lighter and fruitier, while Chardonnay aged in oak barrels will contain that buttery, oaky essence. 

2. Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is highly acidic and ranges from bone dry to incredibly sweet. Drier versions contain prominent pear and green apple notes, while sweeter Chenin Blanc has a pleasant honey taste. 

3. Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

Pinot Grigio is zesty and fruity with high levels of acidity. Like Chenin Blanc, this white ranges from slightly sweeter to drier styles. Typical tasting notes include lemon, peach, and bitter almond for that extra zip!

4. Riesling

A German wine, Riesling is made in both dry (brut) and super sweet forms, as well as everything in between. Stone fruits, elderflower, citrus, and green apple are prolific flavors in young Riesling. But did you know that sommeliers seek out an aged form of Riesling that tastes similar to petrol? Talk about an advanced palate!

5. Viognier

Grown in the United States, France, and New Zealand, Viognier is an aromatic white wine with a citrus twist. If you’re in for a bouquet of flavor, this white wine boasts rose petals and tangerine notes. 

6. Gewurztraminer

Another famous German wine, Gewurztraminer, is incredibly boozy and fruity with low acidity. It gives off a distinctive lychee aroma and pineapple, passionfruit, and rose petal flavors. Depending on the type, this wine is one of the sweetest white wine varietals, perfect for dessert!

7. Sauvignon Blanc

Boasting grapefruit and passion fruit flavors, this dry white wine is bursting with refreshing acidity. This wine is very fruity or savory, depending on where it’s produced. In New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc is known for its distinct grassy note. In South Africa, this wine is delightfully dry with white floral aromas and stone fruit.

How to become a wine varietal expert

Become a Varietal Expert!

Now that you know what wine varietals are and how these wines are labeled, you’re ready to venture out on your own!

Explore a vast selection of wine varietals at Macy’s Wine Shop today. 

You’ll quickly become an expert with many wine varietals, including red, white, Rosé, and sparkling selections from around the globe. 

Continue your wine education with Macy’s Wine Shop Blog here

Shop our Top Red Reds and Top Rated Whites before you go.