This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, covering everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term.
Varietal vs. Variety (n.) Winemaking Term
You are undoubtedly aware that there are many different varieties of wine grapes, just as there are different varieties of tomatoes and oranges, coffee and roses. Each variety falls under the same species, which all share a genus. The vines that typically produce wine grapes are of the genus vitis and the species vinifera. After that, every grape is its own variety: chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, etc. Jancis Robinson's book Vine Grapes details 1,368 different varieties, though she states in the preface there are an estimated total of about 10,000 varieties from six different species, including the wine grape varieties native to North America, vitis labrusca (concord, niagra) and vitis riparia (baco noir).
Also stated in Vine Grapes is an impatience for the misuse of varietal in place of variety. This likely got started when California began labeling their wines with the grape name, aka variety, making the final product a varietal wine. Robinson writes, "Varietal, incidentally, is an adjective and is most logically applied to a wine or the way it is labelled. The associated noun is variety, which applies to the particular sort of vine used to produce a wine. There has recently been a tendency, regretted by those of us who treasure precision, to describe plants as varietals. it may be so widespread as to be unstoppable, but not for want of trying on our part."
Even the Oxford American Dictionary gives varietal two entries, one an adjective, the other a noun. And so the lexicon evolves, or de-evolves, depending on how you see it. All the same, the significance of varietal wines are namely for the marketplace. It's far easier to recognize and remember a grape name than to memorize the grapes legally delineated for wines named after origin, like Chinon, Volnay, Rioja and Barolo. I do find it curious that it's made such a difference given the number of drinkers I've encountered who don't realize - or seem to care - that chardonnay is a grape. They just know they like it. I suppose it's easier to pronounce than Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet, both wines made from chardonnay, and in the eyes of many Americans, less "pretentious". We are so proud of our ignorance.
In short, Variety is the type of grape or the grape name, and Varietal is an adjective that describes a wine so named for the grape used to make it, as opposed to naming it for the place it was grown.