authenticity and typicity

Monday, January 03, 2011

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. The word suggests that there will be no surprises, and if a wine is “typical” it is very close to, if not completely, generic.

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.”

Now there’s a term to chew on! Viticultural racism!?! Hmmm. Maybe our unspoken fear of being branded viticultural racists precludes any meaningful discussion of a wine’s typicity here in the USA. We toss around terroir as if it were as common as dirt – which, actually, it is. Yet typicity, and its analogue, authenticity, touch upon such things as a proper assessment of individual varietal character, and (shudder!) 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.

In an earlier discussion on this topic, 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 Burgundy for Martin Prieur and Antonin Rodet, and in Provence for Domaine De La Courtade. Here in the U.S. Quillé has made wines at J. Lohr, Hogue Cellars, and now Pacific Rim.

 He relates typicity to a sense of authenticity for a wine.

“Let me give you a couple of examples,” he explains. “A ‘typical’ chardonnay from Meursault would be lighter, nice oak tone, good acidity, age worthy. In contrast, a wine from Meursault that was tank fermented, and 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).”

Along with the typicity/authenticity of terroir – equally important in my view – is the typicity/authenticity of varietal character. In my educational seminars I most often begin with a discussion of 8 or 10 important grapes, focusing in on the typical flavors for each. That does not mean that they cannot express a range within that definition – of course they can and should – but at bottom, a pinot noir should taste like pinot noir, and not syrah, for example.

When I am reviewing and scoring wines for Wine Enthusiast, I am on occasion brought up hard against this very consideration. I use pinot noir as an example because it is the wine that most commonly pushes the boundaries of what I would consider to be authentic. I have tasted and reviewed some very good wines that were labeled pinot noir, but had alcohol pushing 16% and displayed none of the elegance or finesse that I associate with the finest examples of the grape. Should those wines be penalized (in terms of score) for being atypical?

If so, should a vintner such as Christophe Baron also be penalized because his wines are not “typical” of any others made in the Northwest (or anywhere else in the New World, for that matter)?

I answer such questions on a case by case basis. But I will say that, if a wine connects to a full spectrum of offerings from the same producer that all display a certain (albeit unique and singular) typicité… then I will push aside my own predilections and give way to the notion that at times even typicity can be… well… atypical.


DAH is David Anthony Hance said...

I've always thought this was the major challenge with scores. Is there an absolute scale (usually 100 points, these days) to judge all wines' quality? I think not. The alternative is that points are being awarded based on the taster's comparison of the wine being evaluated with other wines (actual or remembered) of some similar type. Add the complexity of wines that are not "typical" (as you suggest with the wines of Christophe Baron) and the need to imagine an absolute quality scale for them (how else can we evaluate the new and different without dismissal for lack of typicity?) and the taster is forced into using numbers to express subjective determinations. I don't have a solution, but I think it is important that we keep this challenge in mind, as a point-system caveat.

Justin said...

I always wonder if varietal 'typicity' means 'tastes French' when talking about French varieties or 'tastes Italian' when talking about Italian varieties. At what point does 'tastes like Walla Walla Cabernet' or 'tastes like Napa Chardonnay' mean that it a wine has typicity, even though they may not be particularly similar to Bordeaux or Burgundy?

Beyond that, Chardonnay is an interesting example of how typicity can be a nebulous thing. Depending on how you treat the wine, it can show very different characteristics. In your example of Meursault, isn't adding oak flavor to a wine manipulating it more than aging in stainless would be? However, I agree that a Meursault without oak influence isn't a typical Meursault at all. So should 'typicity' mean essentially 'regional tradition?'

This leads to the obvious question: Can you compare a wine from one region to one from another at all? Is a comparison between a Napa Cabernet and a Pauillac one of apples and apples, or are they inherently different because of climate/terroir, production method, subjective perception, et cetera?

I tend to say that the two cannot be compared on an objective level. The only comparison that one can make is 'I like this more than I like that,' which provides no satisfaction whatsoever to our (or at least my) desire to make vast declarative statements of absolute truths.

Damn! I so like to be absolutely right, too.

plymale said...

For me, an atypical wine that I don't like is atypically bad, and one that is I do like is atypically good. -Andy "Phillistine" Plymale

Charlie Olken said...


One of the things I like least about the terms authenticity and typicity is that too many people think the definitions must be rooted in and based on the manner in which wines from the established (European) regions present themselves.

So, if Walla Walla Merlots, regardless of how pleasing they may be, do not taste like wines from the Right Bank, then they cannot have typiciity. And without typicity, then they cannot have authenticity. And there you are again. On that slippery slope that plagues us all.

So, I have simply abandoned precise preconceived definitions. Yes, I have expectations for varieties and for how those varieties will perform in different locations, but, as well-defined as West Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignon is, it still produces a range of good results in the hand of practitioners ranging from Corison and Spottswoode at the elegant end of the spectrum to Staglin and Hewitt at the other end.

That does not mean that I am open to CS that tastes like PS, but if some CA PNs have a touch of concentration that might remind some of Syrah, they do not get out of bounds unless they are so leathery, gamy, coarsely textured as to lose all contact with their locale peers.

I apologize for going on at length, but it is to make the point that authenticity and typicity are as dangerous to wine appreciation as they are constructive. They are not measurable, and are far too often employed to mean "I don't like the style".

PaulG said...

David, I agree with you. It's an ongoing challenge to make these admittedly subjective decisions. I do the best I can. Justin, I didn't mean to imply that because typicity is a French concept, that it follows that a chardonnay must taste like Burgundy to be considered typical or authentic. Charlie, I do think that varietal wines should taste like the grape variety they are named for, but there is a rather broad spectrum of what any grape "should" taste like. I want typicity to reflect the particular growing conditions of the region or vineyard AND to show a connection to the expected fruit flavors of the grape.

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