So Typical: Navigating a New World of Wine Diversity

Recent upheavals in wine—style wars, climate change and the rise of lesser-known grapes—have ushered in a wealth of new tastes that are challenging the way we buy, drink and learn about it. Jennifer Fiedler untangles the ever-evolving meaning of "typicity" in wine.

When it comes to geeking out about wine, the concept of terroir tends to overshadow typicité, wine’s other big French T-word. And understandably so: Terroir has all the romance, the magic, the science-can’t-explain-why-my-wine-tastes-like-this.

Typicité sorts through all of winemaking’s variables—the oak barrels, the grape composition, the fermentation styles—and comes up with an acceptable range for what wine from a certain region is supposed to taste like. In France, for example, we associate a specific flavor profile and style of winemaking with, say, chardonnay from Chablis. Wines made in this general, accepted profile for the region are said to have typicité.

And while terroir—which is the sort of mystical artist to typicité’s straight-laced census-taker—continues to dominate the conversation about wine character, we all think about typicité more than we realize. It’s there when someone recommends a syrah from the Rhône over shiraz from Australia. Or when someone says to pair salmon with pinot noir.

The broadest interpretation of typicity (the Anglicized typicité) is the concept of consumer protection. If a wine has typicity, you get what you believe you are buying. To make a comparison to the non-wine world, typicity is sort of like genres in music, such as country, metal or R&B—semi-artificial, yet commercially useful definitions that sketch out what a consumer should expect from the product. A musician can try to avoid being labeled one way or another, but finding an audience becomes more challenging without a genre. Likewise, a winemaker can attempt to create a wine atypical of its region or traditionally accepted construct. This, it seems, is happening more often.

If in recent years it’s become more difficult to tell what a wine is going to taste like from its label alone, there’s a reason. The most recent edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, released in 2006, reports that “some distinctions between what were regarded as wine archetypes are being eroded and there is more disagreement than ever as to what constitutes typicality.” And it’s only gotten more confusing—or exciting, depending on your viewpoint—since then.

The 1970s marked the beginning of the era of globalized wine. New vineyards, new winemaking technology, new wine schools, new wine drinkers and a unified aesthetic vision in the nascent critical press added up to a international style of wine, and with it, a new template for a more standardized varietal typicity. Which brings us roughly to the doorstep of now, where we’re witnessing a kaleidoscopic breakdown of that homogeneity.

Credit wine culture wars with the debate over ripeness levels or natural winemaking techniques. Or blame climate change, which has brought England weather warm enough to make sparkling wine. Or consider the economics that cause start-up winemakers to gravitate to lesser-known, often less-expensive grapes. Whatever it is, gone are the days when you could say, “zinfandel,” and someone would pretty much know what you were talking about (that is, if those days ever truly existed beyond wine school textbooks).

The question, now: Can typicity still be a thing? Or was it ever? Understanding the answer means looking to the past.

The concept of typicity has been around as long as there have been multiple wines to compare. But according to winemaker Jeremy Seysses of Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac, typicité gained a more formal definition with the advent of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) in the early 1900s, the French regulatory body that governs how wines are labeled.

“When the English were talking about Burgundy a century ago, they were talking about something very rich and much more like Châteauneuf du Pape—probably because it was mostly Châteauneuf du Pape,” Seysses says of Burgundian négociants’ practice of adding riper grapes from the south of France to the region’s pinot noir to get a darker wine. “The conversation got a fresh shot in the arm because the appellation controllés came to exist. All of a sudden you have wines that were coming from the place they were purported to come from; everything was redefined at that stage.”

Cue decades of refinement and you get French laws on trellising, planting densities and yields—all to ensure that bottles labeled “Burgundy,” for example, taste like Burgundy.

But that doesn’t mean things have stayed the same, even with the rigid structure AOCs enforce. “There’s an unwillingness to acknowledge there have been changes,” says Seysses. “The 1990s were all about cold soaks and extraction, the 2000s are not—there’s been a return to elegance.” Seysses says that today, he sees shifts in Burgundian winemaking styles most often when there is a generational change at a winery. But also, a slow tweaking of process—whether it’s experimenting with alternative aging vessels or styles of fermentation—exists as well. This all compounds to slowly shift notions of typicité.

In the United States and the non-Europes of the wine world, typicity is a far muddier topic. In these regions, younger cultures are still experimenting without being bound by traditions of a place. While certain estates have historical precedent in a site and an identifiable signature, the focus on staying true to type seems to have shifted largely from place to varietal character. This is both an easier concept (the answer is in the DNA of the grape) and a tougher one (what is the truest and best expression of the grape?).

As organizing principles go in wine, labeling by grape variety is relatively new. The Oxford Companion to Wine traces ID’ing by variety to wine consultant Frank Schoonmaker, who championed the concept in the 1950s as a way of moving away from California wines generically labeled “California Burgundy” or “California Bordeaux” that were common at the time. The idea caught on in earnest in the 1970s, and with it, the ascent of the variety as brand; names like “Chardonnay” and “Cabernet Sauvignon” ruled the market.

The 1970s also marked the beginning of the era of globalized wine. New vineyards, new winemaking technology, new wine schools, new wine drinkers and a unified aesthetic vision in the nascent critical press added up to a international style of wine, and with it, a new template for a more standardized varietal typicity.

Which brings us roughly to the doorstep of now, where we’re witnessing a kaleidoscopic breakdown of that homogeneity. In both the old and new worlds, winemakers are producing an unprecedented variety of wine, all under the bursting umbrella of an old labeling system. And the question is whether all this chaos will become organized somehow—via a new collection of definitions—or continue to splinter? Does the emergence of new styles and grapes change our understanding of typicity, or eradicate it entirely?

One of the problems in talking about typicity today is that it has taken on many meanings, all under the banner of consumer guidance. Like the descriptors “minerality,” “balance” and “power,” the concept of typicity gets lobbed in wine writing and conversation as shorthand, but shorthand for any number of things.

It can mean both distinct (wines with typicity must have something that sets them apart) and possessing of sameness (the wines from one region must have similar qualities). It can refer to a cultural stereotype (Beaujolais should be made with carbonic maceration) or imply that the variability of the region in question is subject to vintage variation. It can be both perjorative and praising. To go back to the music metaphor, opera is traditionally considered high art, but country music, less so.

As Jason Lett of Oregon’s Eyrie Vineyards points out, there’s also “market typicity and a varietal typicity,” which, he believes, stray far from one another quite often. “I had a Kerner Pinot Gris and it was racy and complicated,” says Lett. “It certainly wasn’t commercially typical [for pinot grigio, which he says “has a stylistic designation of lemon water”], but I thought it was varietally very resonant.”

Indeed there seems to be a tension between what the mass market expects from a grape variety—the grape as brand—and what that same variety can do in the framework of fine wine. And this tension is at play before even trying to define what the typicity of a region or site actually is. Is it a specific set of flavors or aromas that a grape produces? Or ripeness levels, body weight or acidity? The amount of oak used in aging?

To touch back to typicity’s roots, the challenge for winemakers in today’s increasingly diverse market is how best to communicate what’s in the bottle.

Ted Lemon, winemaker at Sonoma’s Littorai, says the grape-based dominance in labeling will be hard to break, regardless of the fact that diversity has chipped away at its utility: “In the big picture, ‘cabernet people’ tend not to drink pinot. And ‘pinot people’ are not going to drink cabernet, they’re going to drink pinot, whether it’s the Eola Hills or Central Otago or the Russian River.”

Perhaps, though, we will see the introduction of something entirely different. Wine writer Alice Feiring reported last week, that for two years, the South Africa Wine Board has been considering approving categories for export based on winemaking methods, such as low sulphur dioxide, oxidative and nouveau wines.

Maybe generalities and labels will always be imperfect shortcuts for talking about wine. Whatever it is, don’t expect it to stay the same—it will be “an ongoing conversation,” as Seysses put it. “It’s been going on forever and will keep on going forever.”