Talkin’ About Varietal Wine

Everybody knows Kendall-Jackson produces many different “varietal” wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris. But what are varietal wines? Where do they come from? How did they get their names?

All of the major varietal wines grown in California (and in Europe) are members of a single plant species, vitis vinifera. This species probably descended from wild grapevines growing in south-central Europe and southwest Asia, in the Caucasus region near the present-day country of Georgia. The cultivation of vitis vinifera began in prehistoric times.

By the time of the Greeks, vine cultivation and winemaking were well-established. The Romans spread viticulture throughout Europe, colonizing the valleys of rivers, including the Rhone, Dordogne and Rhine.

Each European region over the centuries learned which grape variety or varieties thrived in its particular climate and soils, but it wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that the modern names of grape varieties began to emerge. With the twentieth century, and the establishment of university departments of viticulture and enology that published research journals, was born the modern science of ampelography — the identification and cultivation of grapevines.

Today, there are countless species of vitis vinifera; Italy alone accounts for close to one thousand. But due to the peculiarities of the market, here in America a handful of varieties dominates. Americans have largely proven to be resistant to expanding their varietal preferences beyond the current range.

Where do the major varieties come from? Here’s a quick list:

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: the Bordeaux region of southwest France.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir: Burgundy, in east-central France.

Sauvignon Blanc: also originated in Bordeaux.

Zinfandel: Its origins long were a mystery. The variety now has been traced to Croatia, but Zin was brought to California in the 1800s by immigrants and is now associated more with our State than with any other region.

Syrah: probably originated in southeastern France as the accidental cross of two obscure varieties.

Riesling: comes from the Rhine region of western Germany.

Pinot Gris: probably a mutant clone of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris also started in Burgundy.

Incidentally, the words “varietal” and “variety” are often used synonomously, but technically, “varietal” is an adjective and “variety” is a noun. Here are two proper ways to use both words:

  1. Pinot Noir is a variety of vitis vinifera.
  2. Pinot Noir is a varietal wine.


Steve Heimoff is one of America’s most respected and well-known wine writers. The former West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine and a contributor to Wine Spectator, he has also authored two books on the subject of California wine, including “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff,” published in the fall of 2007.