As vintners and consumers have become aware of the characteristics of individual varieties of wine grapes, wines have also come to be identified by varietal names. Varietal wines are made primarily from a single variety of grape, and identify this variety on the label.
The term's concept was developed by Maynard Amerine at the UC Davis after the Prohibition seeking to encourage growers to choose optimal vine varieties, and later promoted by Frank Schoonmaker in the 1950s and 1960s, ultimately becoming widespread during the California wine boom of the 1970s.
The alternatives to the marketing differentiation of wines by grape variety are branded wine, such as Hearty Burgundy, or geographical appellations, such as Champagne or Bordeaux. The poor quality and unknown provenance of many branded wines and the multitude of potentially confusing, sometimes difficult to pronounce appellations leaves varietal labeling as perhaps the most popular for quality wines in many markets. This is much less the case in places where appellations have a long and strong tradition, as for instance in France. In the past, the grape variety was very uncommonly mentioned on the labels of French wine bottles, and was forbidden for almost all AOC wines. New World varietal wines from newcomers like Australia and Chile have made a significant dent in traditional French export markets like the UK, and so the French are adopting varietal labeling in some cases, particularly for vin de pays. Also, in its own way, Chardonnay is now a powerful brand.
Australia has virtually completed a three decade long transition from labelling by style, eg "claret", "burgundy", "hock", "chablis" to a varietal system. While this has been done in response to pressure from the EU, particularly France, it has paved the way for growing interest among Australian consumers for so called alternative varietals, such as Pinot Grigio / (Pinot Gris), Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
In most regions of France, terroir is thought to surpass the impact of variety, so most French wines have no variety listed at all. Champagne, for instance, is typically a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but this is not indicated anywhere on the label. In Alsace, winemakers adopt the German custom of varietal labeling, and varietal wines must be 100% made from the named grape.
In the USA, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations specify a minimum variety content of 75% of the labeled grape, for Vitis vinifera wines, and 51% for Vitis labrusca wines. There is no restriction on the identity of the balance. Many states in the United States require specific compositions to qualify for sale under a particular varietal labels. For example, in Oregon, wines subject to its regulation must be identified by the grape variety from which it was made, and certain varietals must contain at least 95% of that variety, although the new "Southern Oregon" sub-AVA allows for the minimum 75% figure.