The term varietal is most often used in the context of wine, as a description of the grape used in producing the wine. It may also be used by connoisseurs for crops such as coffee and chocolate, and as specialty region-specific varieties of these crops are becoming more mainstream, the term varietal is also being used more widely.
Historically, the most popular way of labeling wine has been by the region it comes from. The French are the strongest promoters of this method of labeling, with the world-famous regions of Burgundy, Champagne, and Beaujolais, to name only a few. This style of naming relies heavily on the concept of terroir – which holds that the regional qualities where the grapes are grown, such as soil type, weather, and vineyard history, are more important to the ultimate taste of the wine than the exact varietal or blend of varietals used.
When wine began seeing a surge in popularity in the United States in the post-war era, the new vineyards started to fill that demand had to determine how best to promote their wines. Since there were little or no established wine growing regions in the United States, labeling wines based on the concept of terroir seemed to be somewhat pointless. Generic labeling made inroads in many places, usually taking the form of the state in which the grapes were grown, followed by the French appellation the wines most closely emulated. This gave rise to wines with names such as California Chablis and California Burgundy, for example, which were later replaced by the varietal names Chardonnay and Merlot respectively.
In the 1950s, the concept of varietal naming – which had some popularity in other regions of the world, such as the Alsace region of France – was promoted by a number of prominent importers and distributors in the United States. Consumers immediately latched on to varietal naming, which offered a much simpler alternative to generic naming for determining roughly what a wine would taste like. Rather than having to remember thousands of appellations, sub-regions, and châteaux, buyers could remember a handful of varietal names. Initially, in the United States, a wine had to be made from at least 51% of a grape variety to be labeled as that varietal, a number that was raised to 75% in 1973. The list of grape varietals is extensive, but some of the most popular are Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Gewürztraminer, Petit Sirah, Sangiovesse, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Vigonier.