Typicity and Its Challenges

burgundy 2Is typicity any longer a meaningful criterion for evaluating wine? David Schildknecht at World of Fine Wine has some insight into that question.

Communality of methods and stylistic ideals is what makes it meaningful to inquire how wines with a shared name tended to taste during any particular period in history, much as we can ask what characterized musical performance in a given era.

Although it’s difficult to assess the taste of young wine from earlier eras since wine changes and ultimately disappears (unlike recordings or paintings), David points to two examples in which we can infer that generalizations about typical taste profiles from a particular regions were reliable.

But to pick a familiar example from not far back, it’s possible in Bordeaux to describe a significant—one could even argue, a dramatic—transformation in both methodology and resultant taste characteristics within the 1980s—even more clearly if we widen that scope to 15 years. And this Bordelais transformation is familiar to most serious enophiles born anytime between 1930 and 1970.

German Riesling offers another recent example familiar to many wine lovers of dramatic change even as measured along very obvious parameters. A typical Mosel or Rheingau estate during the 1970s or early 1980s bottled a diverse range of Rieslings identified by their permutations of vineyard and Prädikat designations. Most were rendered in old 1,000- or 1,200-liter casks, finishing with between 9% and 12% ABV and (excepting for the occasional product of desiccated berries) 10–60g/l of residual sugar (RS). Twelve or 15 years later, the range on offer from such an estate could be no less confidently characterized, but was radically different. Vinification in stainless steel had become commonplace. Riesling of well under 10g/l RS was not only common, it was often the rule; and such wines frequently ascended to 13% ABV or higher. On the other hand, sweet wines generally started at a minimum of 40g/l RS, and in consequence tended to range from 7.5–9.5% ABV.

In both cases we can point to vinification methods that produced distinctive wine styles with identifiable taste and texture profiles. But that was then. Times have changed.

Today, any such attempt to offer a general characterization of Mosel or Rheingau Riesling is bound to fail. Notwithstanding the important role played by the VDP and that organization’s tendency to prescribe classificatory and marketing parameters, the stylistic and methodological gap between, say, the Rieslings of Clemens Busch and those of Christoph Schaefer, or Wilhelm Weil and Peter Jacob Kühn, is simply too great…

And he adds to the examples of diversity. Grüner Veltliner from Weinviertel or Chenin Blanc from Touraine are no longer necessarily fresh and fruity and may not even be white. Red wines from all regions range from dark and highly extracted to pale and crisp with alcohol levels showing a similar diversity. Experimentation has exploded and many producers are willing to forego the benefits of appellation labeling in order to make the wines they want to make.

Does this mean we can no longer say what a typical wine from Barolo or Burgundy should taste like? Not necessarily. Not everyone is on board with the new diversity:

And there are important voices—Michael Moosbrugger, chairman of Austria’s Traditionsweingüter, being an eloquent example—who believe that fidelity to certain shared methods and resultant wine styles is not just implicated in the essential nature of an appellation but also represents the respect due to one’s fellow vintners, insofar as all are going to sell their wines under a shared name (even that of a particular vineyard).

David characterizes the current situation as a tug-of-war between consumers interested in diversity and traditionalists such as Moosbrugger. That seems right. I suspect there will continue to be a market for a standard Barolo or Bordeaux. There is great satisfaction in tasting a wine that perfectly nails the taste profile of wine regions with a distinctive identity. I recently enjoyed a bottle of Chateau Saint Cosme, a delicious and very typical Viognier from Condrieu. It was deeply satisfying but I must say it wasn’t exciting. It was exactly what I expected. It lack the frisson of surprise that is also a central feature of wine aesthetics.

The tug of war is not only between consumers and traditional producers. It lives within wine lovers themselves. Aesthetics is an arena with multiple, incompatible criteria and that is as it should be.

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