There is no such thing as a grape varietal. Don’t be embarrassed or get angry if you’ve been saying it; so have international wine scholars and reputable publications like Decanter magazine. In a field that is known for its misconstrued vernacular this is easily the most misused term, and that is really saying something.
Is it melodramatic to say that we should join forces to prevent the further erosion of our already-too-frequently bastardized language? Perhaps, but if you’re the kind of person that twitches involuntarily every time you receive an email with a there where a their should be, please read on.
If you flip a coin to decide between your and you’re or wish you could just use ur and u r (i.e. text-speak) in formal writing to save yourself having to think about it, then maybe this particular rant is not for you.
So let’s clarify the issue using the rules of the English language. I know, crazy right?
Grape variety is a noun. Actually, a compound noun where grape is the noun adjunct specifying usage, and variety is the primary noun.
Varietal is an adjective, which (in case you’ve forgotten your grade-school grammar) is a word used to describe something. Specifically, varietal is the adjectival form of the noun variety and can only be used as an attributive adjective placed before the noun it is describing. Therefore the term grape varietal is an incomplete phrase structure that has no meaning.
Okay, that was the technical stuff¹. Here are examples of how to use the noun grape variety correctly:
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety. The grape variety used to make this wine is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bordeaux is usually a blend of multiple grape varieties. The most common grape varieties in Bordeaux are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
To be clear, in none of the above contexts could varietal be substituted for variety. However, there are two common correct usages for the adjective varietal:
A varietal wine is a wine made from a single grape variety. This varietal wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
This wine shows excellent varietal character. This wine has characteristics consistent with the grape variety it is made from.
In both cases above you’ll note that the word varietal is followed by the noun that it is describing.
I have heard it argued by very knowledgeable people that grape varietal is a field-specific usage of the term. That is, when used in the context of wine grapes, the meaning of the word varietal is different than everyday language and therefore acceptable as a noun. To exemplify this argument, surely we can agree that a corked wine and a corked baseball bat have radically different definitions and are very field-specific. However, in both cases corked remains an adjective. No one has ever said: “this wine is a corked” and argued that they were grammatically correct.
To take a line out of Canned Parental Wisdom For Dummies²: just because everyone does it, doesn’t make it right. So the next time that you’re at a restaurant or dinner party and some wine-snob won’t shut up, drop this semantic bomb on them and I guarantee they will be at a loss for words.