typicity - part one

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The French, as is often the case with all things vinous, have a useful word that almost, but not quite, translates into equivalent English. Typicity, in English, is more commonly used in the sense of typical – something that is ordinary, unremarkable, similar to many others. Typicité, in French, suggests more.

From Wikipedia: “Typicity (French typicité, Italian tipicità) is a term in wine tasting used to describe the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins, and thus demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced, i.e., how much a merlot wine tastes like a merlot. It is an important component in judging wine competition when wines of the same varietal are judged against each other.

“In some countries, such as Austria, typicity is used as part of a qualitative hierarchy that takes into consideration soil, climate and vintage. A similar concept to the French terroir, though slightly less controversial, Austrian Qualitatswein (literally "quality wine") is tested for typicity with the classification printed on the wine label.

“As a concept, typicity relies on both historical precedent and a sentiment of what the present day majority view how a certain variety should taste. This can be considered a subjective and unreliable way to measure wine, opening the door to elitism with what has been criticized by some as viticultural racism.”

Hmmm. Whether for fear of being branded viticultural racists (!) or not, in America we rarely speak of typicity. Yet the concepts embodied in the word inform discussions of such things as proper varietal character, and even terroir. Typicity, it seems to me, should be valued and sought after, just as those two attributes are, because it focuses a wine and helps forge a unique, distinctive identity.

I asked Pacific Rim’s French-born and trained winemaker/general manager Nicolas Quillé for his thoughts. Born into a wine business family and educated in Dijon, Burgundy and Reims, he worked in the cellar in France for Martin Prieur and Antonin Rodet in Burgundy and Domaine De La Courtade in Provence. Here in the U.S. Quillé has made wines at J. Lohr, Hogue Cellars, and now Pacific Rim.

Quillé explains that he relates typicity to a sense of authenticity for a wine. “Let me give you a couple of examples,” he continues. “A ‘typical’ chardonnay from Meursault would be lighter, nice oak tone, good acidity, age worthy; a wine from Meursault that is tank fermented, heavy without acid would not have any typicité. For a French person, this wine would lack the authenticity of the particular terroir of Meursault and therefore would not be worth anything (even though it might be a great wine). Second example (happens often to all of us) is about varietal typicity - a cabernet that tastes like a pinot noir would be considered bad, right?

“So for me,” Quillé concludes, “typicity is what one would expect from a wine based on its terroir, its varietal, its vintage and its producer. At Pacific Rim we like to make high acid wine – that is a signature for me and I would find not having high acid wines atypical.”

For myself (PG), here in Washington, I most often find typicity in single varietal, single vineyard wines. In other words, reduce the number of variables by eliminating blending, and you can see the wine in its purest expression. The downside – apart from the fact that no one other than me seems to be looking for typicity in the first place – is that the great majority of wines are better if blended. Pure varietals are difficult to do, and pure varietals from single vineyards are the most difficult.

Given the dicey weather of late – the earliest hard freeze on record hit Washington this year on October 10-11 – winemakers are prone to hedge their bets by bringing in grapes from a variety of AVAs. Especially in Walla Walla, which often takes the brunt of the bad weather, it really makes good sense to bring in grapes from elsewhere. Which means you will be blending not only varietals, but also AVAs. When you do that, typicity vanishes.

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion with a look at some specific wines that do or do not show typicity.


Wawineman said...

How interesting that you find single vineyard, pure varietals the most difficult to do. I would gather that such a style heavily relies on "science" rather than art.
Conversely, a red blend is the "painting of an artist" because it relies mostly on the winemaker's ability to choose the right barrels to create a new harmony. And from my limited view, that appears to be more difficult to create.
I have read your views on your ability to taste Washington "terroir". Do all Washington State grapes exude "typicity"? Which AVAs/vineyards are stronger in that regard? How does WSET test "typicity", "terroir", and amount of oak that is ideal for Washington State wines? Do even top "masters" disagree on such topics?

Bob Neel said...

Along with 'typical' we probably need to add 'consistent' or 'dependable' to fully capture the French meaning. I think typicity suggests that I'll get what I've gotten before, and perhaps more importantly, what I expect to get from this particular bottle.

To the point of which is more difficult, I liken the single-vineyard & -varietal wine to cooking with only one ingredient: it's much easier to make something complex and interesting with multiple ingredients. But the single ingredient carries a purity you lose when you blend.

Regarding WA typicity, we've been making single vineyard Syrahs from Ciel du Cheval and the Boushey Grande Cote vineyards for twelve years. (Please note: the Boushey Grande Cote is distinct from any OTHER Boushey Syrah vineyard, despite the attempts by some to piggy-back on the Boushey reputation) EVERY year these wines have Typicity in spades -- the Boushey consitently Northern-Rhone like, the Ciel more peppery and Southern-Rhone like. Nothing we do at the winery would change that (nor would we want to!).

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