Whither Typicity?

cabernet grapes 2I have always been ambivalent about typicity as a value in appreciating or evaluating wines.

In wine tasting, “typicity” refers to the degree to which a wine reflects its origins, both its varietal origin as well as the place in which the grapes were grown. Typicity is absolutely essential when blind tasting. If wines generally did not express their origins, it would be impossible to identify those origins from tasting alone.

But outside the context of blind tasting, does typicity matter? If a wine is good, why should it matter that it tastes like others of its type?

I think it matters because without typicity it would be much more challenging to recognize differences. If Cabernet Sauvignon routinely tasted like Syrah which routinely tasted like Malbec, or if Sangiovese grown in Tuscany tasted like Sangiovese grown in Paso Robles, these distinctions would cease to matter. Without the conceptual/linguistic framework to organize tastes and aromas, distinctions become much harder to recognize. When faced with a sea of random differences with no structure, a loss of understanding would surely follow. Typicity provides the intellectual scaffolding that organizes the wine world.

However, it should not be a straightjacket. Many winemaking processes undermine typicity. The use of oak, carbonic maceration, botrytis, native yeasts, and styles such as rosé and some natural wines often cover up typicity. But these can be satisfying wines. Furthermore, winemakers who want to explore unique expressions should not feel constrained by worries about typicity.

Typicity in wine is like genre categories in music or literature. Most artists operate within the constraints of their chosen genre and are criticized if they stray from those expectations. But we also find it thrilling when they break the rules if the result is worthwhile. We found it thrilling when Dylan went electric, when Little Nas X released “Old Town Road” (Country Hip Hop) or when Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

We need genre rules to make sense out of creative work but we also need people who can break those rules.

Creativity without constraint is unintelligible but constraint without creativity is stultifying.

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