We Should Get Rid of Typicity as a Criterion of Wine Quality

wine evaluationOne of my pet peeves in the wine world is the outsized role typicity plays in judging wine quality.

Wine education is largely about understanding what a typical Barolo, Left Bank Bordeaux, or Mosel Riesling is supposed to taste like. That’s fine. The entrance fee for any community is to understand the norms of that community. The wine world is organized around the distinctive flavors from these canonical regions and you can’t claim to know wine without understanding these flavor profiles.

But why is typicity a criterion for wine quality? Why do judges and critics downgrade wines that aren’t typical of their region? What matters in the wine world is distinctive variation. We seek out regions, sub-regions, and  vineyards capable of producing wines with a distinctive signature and identity. But then we turn around and insist that a wine must be typical of its region if it is to earn the highest accolades. These goals are in some tension with each other.  If we really value distinctiveness it’s hard to see how typicity could be of equal value. If a wine is typical, it isn’t quite distinctive.

If you happen to own a vineyard with an unusual soil composition that gives you atypical flavors, why should your wines be punished by judges for being atypical? As a winemaker, why should you be forced to “edit out” that distinctiveness in order to conform to what authorities deem is the proper expression of the grapes you’re using?

The over-reliance on typicity guarantees that most wines from a region will be generic. Instead of encouraging differentiation, typicity encourages mediocrity.

Simon J. Woolf made a similar point recently regarding the tasting panels that some regions employ to enforce conformity to an accepted flavor profile.

Typicity serves the needs of people who enjoy the game of deducing the region and varietal based on tasting wines blind. Without typicity, it would be impossible to establish the decision trees that blind tasters use to draw their conclusions. Most wine experts were trained using this deductive model of blind tasting; it is an effective way of sharpening your senses. But by elevating typicity to a criterion for wine quality we’ve transformed an instructional method into an aesthetic goal.

The result is fewer interesting wines.




  1. I’m with you 100% on this one, Dwight. And typicity is dependent not only on growing conditions, but also on winemaking techniques and practices. As those develop and evolve, typicity becomes a moving target–with Soave and Chianti Classico, as obvious examples. There winemaking and grapegrowing have changed so much that they have actually changed the production regulations for the DOCG… and they willl continue to change as the winemaker alters the typicity of the region.

    But very few European regions are making wines that are “typical” of the wines they were making a generation ago–whether that be Chablis, Bordeaux, or the Rhine.

    In Rioja, we have winemakers who are rejecting the norms of the DO because they feel that those norms prevent them from making better wine. Which would you rather drink, a standardized Rioja made to the norms of the region, or a wine that better captures the sense of what the winemaker believes is the highest quality?

    Perhaps that’s the topic for a future column.

    1. Hi Tom,
      It’s complicated. What we want is to preserve variation and diversity and guard against homogeneity. Losing distinctions between varietals would be a loss. But expanding the flavor and aroma range of a varietal might lead to interesting new variations. Nevertheless, a criticism such as “this tastes really good but but it doesn’t taste like Cabernet” would be suspect. If it’s a new variation we should welcome it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.