“variety” versus “varietal”

Castillo plants. Depending on who you talk to, Castillo is probably a variety or, more accurately a cultivar, but it itself is not a varietal. Photo by Meister.

There aren’t many scandals in specialty coffee, but the ones that do exist typically revolve around labeling. The big-time controversies include misleading or downright fraudulent labeling, such as marketing a Costa Rican coffee as a Hawaiian, or putting the word organic on a non-certified product, or swapping out samples after a contract’s been written.

Those are serious offenses that come with legal ramifications, but there are smaller switcharoos that can cause a bit of dust-up, at least in nerdier circles.

For instance, there’s the misuse of the word varietal.

We see it on bags and on coffee profiles, read it in articles and hear it in barista competitions: Bourbon varietal, Typica varietal, and so on. While the term varietal correctly refers to the brewed liquid, it is not, as a matter of fact, the correct term for the subspecies of plant. That would be the coffee’s variety.

In wine, from whose lexicon specialty coffee has inherited both good and bad habits, there are several ways that the two words are used. Variety can refer to either the grape itself (Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris), or to the style or kind of wine, as in red, white, or sparkling, etc.

Varietal is used to describe a wine made from a single variety of grape. So, a glass of Chardonnay would be a varietal wine, made from Chardonnay variety grapes. In specialty coffee, we often see these terms being confused.

Varietal is often used synonymously with variety, even when the plant itself is a cultivar or a hybrid, causing even more confusion.

Peter Giuliano — senior director of the Specialty Coffee Association, word nerd, and lover of taxonomy — recently explained his take on the terms, and whether or not they should be used as interchangeably in coffee as they often are. Said Giuliano, “I’m convinced that wine people wound up with varietal because they were talking about wine being sold by the type of grape it is, as opposed to selling it by region.”  

  • This way of marketing wine came about largely due to the emergence of New World wines, necessitating a distinction between Chardonnay grown in Burgundy as opposed to Chardonnay grown in New Zealand or California.
  • Francine Cohen, wine expert and editor-and-chief of the food-and-beverage publication Inside F&B, said that, in wine, the terms “are used interchangeably, but I don’t think that’s right, and it ends up being very confusing.”
  • Specialty coffee’s growing pains in the same area — the desire to differentiate between, say, a Bourbon from East Africa and one from El Salvador — resulted in both widespread enthusiasm for botanical specification, but also, unfortunately, a lot of misnomers.

If this is the point where you find yourself asking, “What’s the big deal?” then consider the science-obsessed plant-heads who are doing the research and development in coffee on which we rely for future sustainability.

Photo by Meister.

“Even the choice of the term variety is loaded, and it underscores a rivalry between plant breeders and botanists,” Giuliano said. “The botanists reserve the term varieties for things that exist in the wild.

Plants that are the result of human activity they describe with another word: cultivar. Then there are plant breeders.

They use the term variety to describe something bred distinctly for certain characteristics, and they use landrace for wild plants.”

To a botanist, that means that the vast majority of the coffees we know and love are actually cultivars, depending on how we define “wild.” (There is the argument that no Arabica coffee found outside of Ethiopia is technically “wild,” which creates another rub.

) The word cultivar, however, lacks some of the exoticism and romance of variety or even varietal, as it sounds too… practical.

And you can also just forget about using hybrid on a bag or in our marketing, since it has the reputation of being a somewhat dirty word — another perception with which Giuliano gently disagrees.

Variety versus Varietal, Do You Know the Difference?

“Variety” and “Varietal” are two words that are used interchangeable frequently. Years ago, I read if you are referring to a grape, you say “variety” and “varietal” is used when you are referring to the wine.

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As of today, I continue to read and hear the words misspoken. Therefore, I am updating my research and found the following:

Mary Gorman-McAdams, Master of Wine, a New York wine educator, freelance writer and consultant states:

“…variety is a noun and varietal is an adjective. The word variety refers to the grape variety used to make the wine such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and so forth. The word varietal is an adjective, and refers to the wine. It describes a wine that is made from a single or dominant grape variety. Such wines are called varietal wines…”

Wine Spectator addressed the same question from a reader and advised of the following:

“A lot of folks confuse these terms—most wine lovers don’t know that one word refers to grapes, the other to wine. Varieties are types of grapes, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Chardonnay grapes, Zinfandel grapes, etc.

A varietal is a wine that is labeled as being made from one grape variety. Typically you’ll see varietals from New World countries, while Old World wines are more frequently labeled by their region of origin.

So wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Zinfandel are varietals.

We have consensus! Folks, do not allow others who misuse the words to cause you confusion.

In my opinion, it isn’t that serious and does not require correction when an individual utilizes the terms incorrectly. However, it is important to understand the correct meaning of the words.

But not important enough that you lose sight of the wine’s true essence, (negative or positive) and sharing the experience. 

In conclusion, varietals refers to the wines and variety is the grape… wait, did I say that right? ????

Salute! Sante’!

Variety vs. Varietal

Variety and varietal are terms that are used quite frequently in conversations about wine.  Often, there is confusion about which word to use – even among wine professionals.  In fact, it seems the term “varietal” may be one of the most misused terms in all of winedom.

 But it’s not just when talking about wine – I recently heard a chef on TV mentioning different varietals of apples, and not too long ago, I saw a sign advertising “oyster varietals”.

  So, what is the difference between variety and varietal, and how should these terms be properly used?


The word variety is a noun.   When speaking about wine, a variety is a type of vine or a type of grape.  For example, Pinot Noir is a grape variety.  Many people will use the word varietal when they really mean variety.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine states that:

“Vine varieties are distinct types of vine within one species of the vine genus vitis. Different vine varieties produce different varieties of grapes, so that the terms vine variety and grape variety are used almost interchangeably. Each variety of vine, or grape, may produce distinct and identifiable styles and flavours of wine.”


The word varietal is an adjective and refers to a wine that is labelled with the name of the grape variety or varieties from which it is made.  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine:

“Varietal is a descriptive term for a wine named after the dominant grape variety from which it is made. The word is increasingly misused in place of vine variety. A varietal wine is distinct from a wine named after its own geographical provenance…. “

Wines that are named after the appellation or geological area in which they were made are not considered varietal wines. Most varietal wines are single varietal wines (made with just one variety), but there are some examples that may be blends of two or more grapes.

 A few common varietal blends are Chardonnay/Semillon, Cabernet/Merlot, and Cabernet/Shiraz.  Varietally labelled wines are most common in New World wine regions, where they make up the majority of wines produced.

 Some wine regions allow wines to be labelled as a single varietal even though they may contain up to 25% of another grape variety.

The phrase varietal character refers to the aroma and flavour characteristics typical for specific grape varieties, and is also known as typicity.

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I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

Varieties, Varietals, Cultivars and Hybrids …. Oh My!

Posted on April 20 2016

In the coffee industry we tend to use the terms ‘variety’, ‘varietal’ and ‘cultivar’ interchangeably when speaking about coffee subspecies, despite the fact that these terms do have specific, botanical meanings.

The definitions put forward by the Speciality Coffee Association of America, though helpful, are rather terse; and in many other places on the web, the words are bandied about as if they mean the same thing, which isn’t exactly the case.

Clarifying the difference between coffee varietals, varieties, cultivars and hybrids is helpful in not only clearing up the noise but also in helping pave the way for some of the more complex conversations about climate change and disease resistance engaging the speciality coffee industry today.

Firstly, in order to understand what each term means, we also need to clarify what the terms ‘selective’ and ‘natural’ breeding mean:

Selective breeding  (aka artificial selection) is the process through which we humans selectively breed plants (and animals) to develop certain characteristics and leverage different traits such as disease resistance and yield.

Natural breeding (aka natural selection) is the variation that occurs naturally in all populations and organisms. Mutations present in the genome are then passed on to the offspring, thus giving rise to a new variety.

Now, we can define the following terms:

Cultivar is any subspecies produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques; i.e. a cultivated variety developed through selective breeding.

Variety is a subspecies that naturally occurs; not cultivated/a result of natural breeding.

Hybrid is a cross between 2 different species or two different forms of the same species and is a product of natural or selective breeding.

Most of the varieties we know today in specialty coffee can be considered cultivars (i.e. human intervention has had a hand in developing them).

Bourbon and Typica are two of the most well-known cultivars, developed through decades of selective breeding a long time ago.

Although there are many naturally arising hybrids as well (such as Mundo Novo, Timor Hybrid, Pacas etc), human hands will always have had a role somewhere in helping to bring the fruits to market.

Perhaps this is why we at Mercanta tend to use the word ‘variety’ interchangeably with ‘cultivar’. Not only is it just easier that way; it also illustrates the symbiosis between nature and humans that characterises coffee agriculture. 

Varietal vs Variety:

Now that we know the correct usage of variety (even if we decide not to use it), we can begin to untangle the whole ‘what is a varietal’ question.

The word ‘varietal’ as it is used in coffee has been introduced (portage-style) from the wine industry. So although ‘varietal’ can have slightly different meanings, we find it most useful to stick with its boozy heritage.

Simply put and almost magically summarised by Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine): a good way to remember the difference is to recall that one (variety) is a noun and the other (varietal) is an adjective.

Using her words: “The word variety refers to the grape variety, grown and used to make the wine such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and so forth. The word varietal

‘Variety’ vs. ‘Varietal’

For instance, there are two words that I tend to use interchangeably, but should not. Those two words: variety and varietal.

I don’t claim to understand any of the grammatical aspects of these words, but over time I have come to understand the difference — even if I don’t always use them correctly in my writing.

So here is the difference between the two…

In the world of wine, “variety” refers to a grape. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio are examples of grape varieties.

“Varietal,” by contrast, refers to the wine that is made from the given grape. So if you’re drinking what is referred to as a “varietal wine,” that wine will have been made entirely, or almost entirely, from a single grape variety.

We say “almost entirely” because regulations do allow for a certain percentage of another variety or varieties to be included in a varietal wine. But that’s another topic for another blog.

Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to stop using “variety” and “varietal” interchangeably.

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But I’ll never stop believing that variety is the spice of life — especially when it comes to wine.

Verifying Variety versus Varietals

The tea industry is not the only industry that has borrowed vocabulary words from the French wine industry. The word ‘terroir’ is a perfect example. It’s now used to describe ‘the taste of place’ for cheese, chocolate, coffee and olive oil as well as tea. That unique experience of the ‘taste of place’ was first recognized, verbalized and promoted internationally by the French wine industry. There was no need to invent a new word when the word ‘terroir’ could so aptly express the same phenomenon in tea. But when we borrowed the use of the words ‘variety’ and ‘varietal’ from the French wine industry, we didn’t realize that they had already imbued a degree of confusion and ambiguity into them before we went right ahead and added more of our own.

Botanically speaking, ‘variety’ refers to a taxonomic rank, a category below species that has a three part name used in an internationally accepted convention that appears in italics.

For instance, Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica are the two major varieties (not varietals) of the Camellia sinensis plant used to produce tea.

From these two varieties, many new types of Camellia sinensis plants have been developed and bred for specific characteristics, often at tea research stations. These are called cultivars. For instance, the Yabukita cultivar was developed by Hikosaburo Sugiyama in the Shizuoka Prefecture of Japan and registered in 1953.

Once developed and registered, a cultivar can be considered to be the legal property of the organization or person who developed it.

This may seem confusing if you are familiar with French winemaking terms because they have a habit of using the word ‘variety’, as in ‘grape varieties’ to refer to what are really – botanically, technically and legally speaking – cultivars according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. So while this informal, more inclusive use of the word ‘variety’ has become entrenched in the French wine industry, it is not (correctly) used that way in the tea industry.

Often the word ‘varietal’ is used interchangeably, and incorrectly, with the word ‘variety.’ The improper use is illustrated here: “Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica are two varietals of the tea plant.

”  In French winemaking, and technically in tea, the word ‘varietal’ has just one use.

Quoting from Wikipedia: “A varietal describes a wine made primarily from a single named grape variety, and which typically displays the name of that variety on the wine label…The term is frequently misused in place of vine variety; the term variety refers to the vine or grape while varietal refers to the wine produced by a variety.” A varietal does not refer to a plant in any way, only to the finished product. Chardonnay grapes can be used to make many wines. It is only when the Chardonnay grape variety is made into Chardonnay wine that the wine is considered to be a varietal wine.

Wikipedia continues to say: “Similarly, the term varietal can be used to describe cider made from a single variety of apple, tea made from a single variety and preparation, or to describe particular subspecies of coffee.

” An example of a varietal tea then could be a cup of Longjing tea made exclusively from the leaves of a Longjing cultivar processed in the classic Longjing style. It’s not really a word that we would find the need to use often in tea, since it couldn’t be used on a label to describe the contents of a container of tea leaves.

A great place to use it would be on a café menu, where classic teas from cultivars such as Longjing and Tie Guan Yin were being served. They could be grouped together as an offering of ‘varietal teas.’

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