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What is single varietal wine?

What is single varietal wine? | The Latest | RedThumb Natural Wines

Why is single varietal wine the standard for RedThumb Natural Wines?

Whenever we’re talking to customers, or doing wine tastings, the topic of single varietal wines inevitably comes up. Like any industry, the wine world is littered with buzzwords. And like a lot of buzzwords, single varietal can often be misunderstood. If you know what a varietal is, you can intuit what it means to be a single varietal—but we’ve found that what people don’t get are the implications of this. Because the RedThumb lineup is all single varietal, it’s often inferred that this by default makes it a better wine. That’s not necessarily the case. So why, then, do we only carry these one-grape wonders? The answer is found in why we started RedThumb to begin with.

The truth about the wine world’s buzzwords

What does it mean when the label says sustainable, clean, or low intervention? The truth is these terms have no set definitions, and even if they did there isn’t an overriding organization that legislates their use and enforces compliance. This is most noticeable with the word “natural,” a descriptor so broad you could advertise a bottle of cyanide with it and make a case for your truth telling. The label is the last ad space opportunity to capture your attention at the store. Wine marketers know this, and take clear advantage of the situation by using these [ultimately meaningless] buzzwords to sell more wine. 

It’s gotten so bad that Carole Meredith, famed grape geneticist and woman who knows a thing or two about the main ingredient of wine, remarked in the documentary SOMM: Into the Bottle, “Can there be any other business where there’s so much bullshit?” Forgetting about the business of manure supply and distribution, we think Meredith is right. It’s one of the driving factors behind starting RedThumb; we wanted a no-BS approach and to avoid ambiguity in our labeling. With this in mind, we went about setting our own standards, starting with something as basic as what it should mean to be a “natural” wine.

First, and what we think is most important, we thought about these standards not just in terms of benefits to you, the consumer, but also through the lens of ecological responsibility. Organic grapes and dry farming aren’t just buzzwords to us. They’re integral parts of ecologically sound agriculture. Organic is cleaner, dry farming conserves water, and both practices just happen to produce a better tasting grape. Everyone wins.

In addition to setting standards for the growing of the grapes, we then focused on the winemaking process itself. Abandoning our principles here would just be screwing up the [literal] fruits of all that front-end labor. There are just too many ways winemakers can and do change the final product to something where the grape gets lost in the mix.

Just about everything they do in between harvest and bottling has a hand in the final flavor, which is why we’ve made the minimal- and low-intervention approaches to winemaking a cornerstone of RedThumb. Using a bare minimum of preservatives, no added sugars, and native yeast to drive fermentation, our wines are crafted to honor the work done in the vineyard. This is the mindset that informed our decision to offer only single varietal wines.

Understanding wine blends

The idea of a blend vs. a single varietal wine sounds pretty self-evident: the former contains multiple types of grapes, whereas the latter is made from just one. In the case of some classic wines, like Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the blend is a tightly controlled mix of grapes and tradition, a way for winemakers to put their own personal imprint on the finished product. Newer blends may yet turn out to be classics—time will tell—but more often than not a modern blend is often a matter of mixing whatever grapes they think will go well together to come up with a “proprietary” formula. This is popular among California wines, like The Prisoner and Conundrum. While these are some of the best selling wines on the market, there are no controls over what grapes can be used in the final product.

The point of all that blending is to have a finer degree of control over the final product. Winemakers often have a “house style” that they want to replicate for each vintage, opting for predictability over letting more unassisted processes transform the juice into wine. The blending could also be a response to feedback from tasters and the market. If enough people describe your pinot noir as “bright” and “unassuming,” maybe you’d want to blend in a little petite syrah for a deeper and richer taste.  Whatever the reason for a blend, and even with the noblest of intentions, the bottle ends up being a reflection of the winemaker’s taste, and not the grape that was grown. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the blending approach, it’s just not what makes us love wine.

All the single labels 🎶

Then there’s the matter of the labels themselves. Depending on where a wine is made, a wine may be labeled as a single varietal even though its makeup is anywhere from 10% to 25% not that varietal. That’s because of regional differences across the world in what’s allowed and what isn’t in a bottle of wine. In these cases, the exact mix of grapes is rarely known to the customer, requiring some extra legwork to find out what’s in your bottle.

For all these reasons, RedThumb has chosen to make all our wines 100% single varietal. There is zero blending taking place; we want the wine in our bottles to taste of a time and place, and of the grape that went into it. This eliminates confusion for our customers, too, who know exactly what they’re getting. 

And, with all that said, we didn’t make single varietals a standard of ours. But they do, by their very nature, best express the crazy-specific growing standards that are at the heart of our mission. The truth is, we would love to offer a classic blend like Bordeaux or ​​Cotes-du-Rhône, but only if it’s done right, ya know? Until then, we’ll continue to offer the wines we love that represent our passion for the craft. 

And should the day come that we do offer a blend, you can be sure that we’ll put every grape that’s used, and in what amount, right on the label. No organizing body needs to tell us to do that, either. It’s why we have standards.