Variety, Varietal; Vitis, Euvitis

Jul 1, 2009

“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” – Voltaire

My mother is an editor. If there is anything she values more than style it is clarity. Clarity for her means the reader is not confused, that ideas have been defined and described clearly in a work of non-fiction. When reading a work of fiction, she looks to the characters, their actions, their movements, the scenery laid out in confident prose. It is so easy to muddle up good writing by misusing words.

In the world of wine-speak and wine journalism, I find there is a grammatical issue that continually eludes being addressed, if not corrected. If we don’t use our words correctly and respect the tenets of grammar and proper usage, how are we to further our education in matters of wine?

I am talking about the misuse of such words as ‘variety’ and ‘varietal’ and how the distinction relates to the ‘great wine scheme of things’.

I first came across the distinction and misuse of these words while attending the Wine Studies Education Trust classes at the Art Institute in Vancouver. In a random comment, a fellow student, (who was also a server at prestigious wine bar), used the word ‘varietal’ instead of ‘variety.’

Iain Phillips, our instructors groaned. You could actually see one of his temples collapse on one side of his forehead.

“I’m sorry, but that’s not how you use the word. I really can’t stand how people can know so much about wine but not know which word is used for which.”

The class became silent. The server blushed with embarrassment.

“I don’t mean to pick on you. I’m sorry. But I figure everyone should hear this so we can spread the word. A variety is a type. Pinot Gris, Cabernet, Chardonnay. Those are all varieties. When you go to the grocery store and look at apples, do you see varietals?”

The server shook her head.

“It would sound ridiculous if you referred to a Mackintosh as a varietal.”

“Of course.”

“Again, varieties. The word ‘varietal’ is an adjective, describing a wine that is of a single variety. Tonight we had a Valpolicella. That is a blended wine. But next week we’ll have a Nero d’Avola varietal wine. The wine isn’t a blend. So we call it a varietal. Do you see the difference?”

We all did.

“So basically when talking about grapes, we say variety. When we talk about wines, we use ‘varietal’. So the variety is Chardonnay in this varietal wine. Would you say that is one of the better ways to explain it?” The whole class nodded.

Iain smiled, his temple restored to normal.

Listening to my instructor, I knew he had a point. Since finishing my courses, I became even more passionate about this distinction and the need to respect grammar. I admit, I too began to groan when I heard ‘varietal’ used instead of variety to describe a grape and not a wine. Sometimes it was a customer speaking in a wine store, sometimes a wine educator at a function. Sometimes it was a colleague and, believe me, I had a bone to pick with him.

When I read wine publications, I groan even harder thinking of the essayist Michel de Montaigne who once wrote: “We set our stupidities in dignity when we set them in print”.

Thankfully, some journalists like Jancis Robinson uses the word ‘variety’ when talking about the latest trends in grape-growing. But turn to another publication or flip back a few pages from Jancis and you find someone describing the Riesling grape as a varietal. Please, please just give me consistency.

I know I must sound like a hard-ass here but I have my reasons (and I’ve probably created a few enemies). Some people might say hey… ‘varietal’, ‘variety’ who cares…? A small matter of semantics. Bend a little; take it easy.

We need structure to communicate. If people started treating Stop signs like Yield signs because they refuse to respect the difference, wouldn’t you be concerned?

I love words and highly revere their use, especially when it comes to science which relies upon such words as genus, sub-genera, species to help us understand lineage and category, especially in matters of grape vines.

I decided to take a page from Iain and go a little further. I began with my Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, I found the words Varietal and Variety.

In regard to the former, definition ‘2’ was the most pertinent: (of wine) made from a single variety of grape. Okay, so far so good.

Right below, I found a number of definitions for Variety with 5 Variety - Biology - a subspecies. A subspecies = variety. This was relevant.

Next I went to Tim Unwin. Opening his masterful book, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade, I turned to the section ‘Ampeloraphy and the Vine’ to gain a better understanding of where variety fits in with the scientific scheme.

Here is what I learned from Tim:

We have Vitis at the top which is a genus. Genus is a taxonomic (the science of classification of organisms OED) category. Vitis is one of 14 genera in the family Vitacea (a family of flowering plants that include the grape and Virginia creeper).

The genus Vitis is known to be divided into two sub-genera: Euvitis or the true grape and Muscadinia, whose fruit is known as Muscadine. (Euvitis fossils have been unearthed in both Eurasia and North America while Muscadinia remains have been found in North America only.) Focusing on Euvitis we find another split, this time between the Eurasian grape species and the North American (not to be confused with the sub-genera, Muscadinia). In the former, we find our vitis vinifera amongst many other species we may have never heard of including: vitis amurensis, vitis armata, vitis lanata, vitis reticulata. In the latter, we have vitis labrusca along with vitis californica, vitis cinerea, vitis riparia and vitis rupestris to name a few.

Vitis vinifera is the species of vine that provides us with the world’s wines. There are thousands upon thousands of different vinifera vine varieties. Some of the more famous have been used in the making of blended and varietal wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc etc…

Under vitis labrusca we find varieties such as Concord (our childhood Welch’s Grape Juice), Catawba, Delaware and Niagara varieties.

Also under North American species, we find vitis riparia. Now, if you have ever tried a Baco Noir from Ontario or a Marechal Foch from British Columbia, the grapes used for these wines are called hybrids. A hybrid is the offspring of two varieties of different species. In the case of Baco, (named after French nurseryman, Francois Baco), this is a result of crossing Folle Blanche (used to make Cognac) from the vitis vinifera species with a variety from vitis riparia.

Marechal Foch, (named after an Alsatian WWI General and bred by Eugene Kuhlmann of Alsace), is a result of crossing Goldriesling from the vitis vinifera family with what some believe to be a variety from a cross between a vitis riparia and vitis rupestris (native to the southern states).

Another famous hybrid you may have come across is Vidal, used in Canadian Icewine in both Niagara and the Okanagan Valley of B.C.

A cross, unlike a hybrid is the offspring of two varieties within the same species. In Germany, Riesling and Sylvaner (both of the vitis vinifera species) have been used to create such hardy grapes as Scheurebe and Rieslaner. In South Africa, Cinsault and Pinot Noir have crossed to create the Pinotage variety.

In the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, our word ‘variety’ is a derivative of the Latin word varius – ‘speckled, variegated, changeable’. The world of wine is filled with changes. There are varieties of grapes like Bobal, Albariño, Godello and Verdejo that are slowly emerging in Spain. But will they be able to compete with world-dominating Shiraz, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc?

In the past thirty years, there have also been changes regarding the emergence of particular wine regions, including Jumilla in Spain and Vacqueyras in the Rhone Valley of Southern France. And in the next thirty years, many more will arrive on the scene, perhaps superseding some of the ones we revere now.

Will we be talking about these grapes and regions instead of our present-standby in the years to come? Who knows? Change is exciting.

But let us not change our grammar especially when it holds a scientific basis. We respect road signs because they help us navigate the confusing world of roads. If we respect words when talking about wine and use them in accordance with their definition, we can avoid confusion, understand each other and converse as Voltaire would want us to.

And hopefully, Iain Phillips temple won’t collapse again.

Ayto, John, Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins. Little Brown, New York, 1990.
Barber, Katherine (ed.) Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English. Oxford Univ. Press, Toronto, 2005.
Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays. Trans. M.A. Screech. Penguin Press, London, 1991.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006
Unwin, Tim, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade. Routledge, London, 1991.

"...he was a poet and hated the imprecise." - Rainer Maria Rilke


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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