When talking about grape varieties – specifically in the realm of tasting, and particularly blind tasting – it’s only a matter of time until the notion of typicity comes up.
However, numerous factors, including climate change, regionally synonymous grape varieties being planted elsewhere (Sangiovese in California, Nebbiolo in Australia, etc.) and the rise in certain winemaking styles (carbonic maceration, more natural/low-intervention methods), has caused the notion of typicity to become slightly hazy.
What is typicity?
Dan Petroski, founder and winemaker at California-based Massican, explains that typicity is a word defined by the wine industry. “I don’t think it is actually an English word, just a translation of the French word that means, typical,” he says, adding that this notion of “typical” can have many diverse meanings, ranging from being typical of a variety, place, or style.
Robin Wright, beverage director of NYC-based Ci Siamo, builds on this, sharing that Wikipedia defines typicity as “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”.
Miguel de Leon, general manager/wine director at Pinch Chinese, describes his definition of typicity as the quality of a wine to be expressive in the essence of a grape’s expected characteristics. “It’s the tell of the wine to show that it’s made with a particular variety, and how that changes through the canvas of geologies available to the grape,” he says.
On a similar note, Catherine Fallis, Master Sommelier of Bright Cellars, notes that the notion of typicity is rooted in a grape type showing its DNA, such as Sauvignon Blanc‘s signature green, herbaceous, and grassy notes. “Where the grape is grown will impact alcohol level, and where it is allowed, winemaking may change it even further,” she explains. “However, in the end, a quality Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Coastal Chile, California, or Marlborough, New Zealand, will all have the greenness.”
Petroski says that a red or a white grape can be of its type – that is, true to its variety – even if it’s planted all over the world. “The climate, the fermentary process, and the choices of the winemaker will then add another layer of typicity,” he says. Similarly, for de Leon, good examples of wines that are expressive of typicity are those that provide hallmark flavors, regardless of where they are grown – which for him, are international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, and Riesling. “The more international a variety, [the more] it opens up the idea of compare and contrast,’ he says, describing said comparisons as useful for academic purposes, as the rest of the terroir can inform how that variety will express itself. He also highlights that oftentimes, a loss of typicity is process driven. “I think wines that require a certain kind of manipulation lose the notion of typicity quickly – think pét-nat and rosés, for example,” he says.
However, de Leon finds that the notion is bunk when discussing grape varieties that are, in his opinion, “completely underserved” (hybrid varieties, backyard indigenous varieties, etc.), as there hasn’t been a large enough sample size or benchmark to place said wines within any sort of comparable category. Emphasizing de Leon’s process-driven point, Wright looks at Sauvignon Blanc, which generally shows notes of grapefruit, gooseberry, and pyrazines, though can often lose its typicity when vinified in specific ways. She reveals that according to the CMS, Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley is often riper and aged in new oak. “I find it very interesting how I’ve seen master-level candidates absolutely stumped when blinding this wine,” she reveals, attributing the difficulty to the ripeness and oak characteristics masking the grape’s classic notes.
Wright also uses Sauternes as an even more striking example. “The wine has so much botrytis and oak that the typicity of the grape is nowhere to be found,” she says.”But do we still love it? Absolutely!” Wright feels that beyond varietal typicity, we should be celebrating the way in which a grape can show itself in a variety of regions and styles. “Instead of celebrating only grape typicity, let’s celebrate stylistic and regional typicity which can be different from vineyard to vineyard.”
The relevance of typicity
For de Leon, the relevance of typicity comes down to usefulness. He explains that if we’re trying to explain how to identify a grape variety to someone, then yes, typicity is important. However, he finds that when talking about a variety in the context of being a global product – particularly with the rise of natural wine and low-intervention practices – then typicity generally isn’t the leading question surrounding the framework of a wine.
Wright ponders whether the notion of typicity has ever been relevant. She equates the recent trends of natural winemaking and carbonic maceration to the fashion of using 100 percent new oak in the past, which can also cover the notion of grape typicity. (Wright also cites botrytis, fortification and intensely ripe grapes as other influences that could mask the notion of typicity.) “There are trends that influence and change wine styles in every region and with almost every grape; I think the older we get the more natural it is for us to shun new trends when the reality is we have been a part of all sorts of trends, and many have come before us,” she says.
For Petroski, the notion of typicity is still relevant, mostly because it is malleable. “I talk about Massican as wine being in a ‘typical’ style,” he says. “When I do blending trials, I ask myself: does this wine smell and feel like Annia? Is it typical of the Massican style?”
Though for others, the relevance of typicity is much more concrete. “Yes, yes, yes!” exclaims Fallis, when asked about her opinion on whether typicity is relevant or not. She says that while there are thousands of grape varieties in the world, consumers would be happy to know just four to 10, rendering typicity important in helping the majority of wine drinkers to figure out what they like. “Trends come and go. Grape DNA stands still,” she says.
Typicity in natural wine
Despite their popularity, Fallis finds that it is more difficult to find grape DNA under natural winemaking styles, which she cites as often having the “familiar funk of craft brew or kombucha”. Petroski disagrees. “There are so many wines made naturally that are pristine examples of grape and place,” he says. “I believe they represent red or white grapes very well, regional climate, and style typicity.”
Read the rest of the article on Wine-Searcher.
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