In praise of wine typicity

Robert Joseph finds he’s changed his mind on the question of changing wine styles.

Photo by Ice Tea on Unsplash
Photo by Ice Tea on Unsplash

How do you feel about pineapple pizza? Alternatively, what’s your opinion of the European tasting panels that regularly throw out wines from top class producers because they fail to conform to the criteria laid down for the appellation?

In other words, where do you stand on ‘typicity’? 

I have to confess to having mixed views on the subject – and ideas that are very different from the ones I had 20 years ago. Back then, I used to get quite exercised about the narrow-mindedness of those tasters who refused to accept Didier Dagueneau’s oaked Pouilly Fumé or Jean Thevenet’s late harvest Mâcon Clessé. Why, I wondered, shouldn’t producers like these be free to experiment, like chefs in a kitchen? Why were they forced to follow train tracks laid down by previous generations? 

At the time, I often felt quite lonely when expressing these views. Typicity, I was regularly told, lay at the heart of the appellation system and of wine education. Without a clear notion of precisely how a Pouilly Fumé should taste, and how it should be identifiably different from, say, a Sancerre or a Menetou Salon, where would WSET Diploma, MW and MS students be?

Today, ironically, as my opinions have changed, others seem to have been heading in the opposite direction.

Judging by a growing number of pieces I’ve been reading and conversations I’ve been having, the chances of finding an Anglo-Saxon wine writer or professional with doubts about ‘typicity’ are now about even. Why, an MW asks, does Provence rosé have to be pale? What’s wrong with 15% Volnay? And why shouldn’t a white Minervois be orange?

In my defence, in the days when I when I was defending Dagueneau and Thevenet, they and their fellow Gallic pioneers had been put in an invidious position by restrictive French laws. In regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy that had no Vin de Pays, if your wine didn’t conform to appellation rules, you had to sell it as a Vin de Table – with a label that could not include a region, grape variety or vintage. In other words, unless you were distributing it in tiny quantities to a very particular set of customers, it had almost no commercial value.

Today, as Vino da Tavola did in Italy, Vin de France has given winemakers the scope to explore all sorts of previously unimagined styles and to market them with informative labels and at premium prices. No-one has to make an AOP, but if they do, they are still obliged to be judged by those pesky tasting panels that I – to my surprise – am a lot readier to support.

To explain why I have changed my mind, I’d like to compare my role today with the one I used to hold – and to refer back to the pizza. As a critic at the turn of the century, I was writing for an audience who were already sufficiently interested in wine to be reading my words – a cohort that, even in a national newspaper, represents less than 10% or, at most, 15% of the wine-drinking population. They wanted to know about what was new and different, and even if they didn’t, I was pretty keen on telling them about it. If a Marlborough producer made a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted deliciously unlike any wine of that designation I’d ever tasted, well, what could be excitingly better?

Now, I’m a business writer, focusing on the bigger picture, looking at the entire shelf of bottles, and at the other 85% of shoppers who simply want something enjoyable to drink for a price they are happy to spend. 

Buying a bottle of wine, for them, is usually very like ordering a dish in an Italian restaurant. Most of us have a pretty clear idea of the pizzas we prefer. In the UK, a recent Foodhub survey into five million takeaway meals revealed that by far the British favourite was Margherita, which represented 44.9% of orders, Pepperoni came in a distant second with 15.8% and Hawaiian – the one with the pineapple – a respectable 5.7%. In the US, Pepperoni is apparently the winner at Domino’s, followed by sausage, bacon, mushrooms and pineapple. 

Whatever relationship they might have to the Italian original, however, each of these pizzas is typical to its own category. The Pepperoni or Hawaiian or Margherita you order in Hamburg will be pretty similar to the one you get in Hamburg, Hanoi or Honolulu. And, in an otherwise uncertain world, that’s very welcome.

And so, back to wine. If I see Chablis or Chenin Blanc on the label of an unfamiliar bottle of wine, I no more want the former to be slightly off-dry because of the warm harvest or the latter to have been spiced up with a little Gewurztraminer, than I’d like the pizzeria to have adorned my Quattro Stagioni with bit of pineapple.

To print an appellation or grape variety on a label is to make a promise to a potential buyer; an undertaking to deliver a flavour and style they have good reason to expect. The Medoc and Minervois should be as predictable as the Margherita.

I love atypical, innovative wines, but I don’t like giving surprises to people who aren’t looking for them.

Producers who, for whatever reason, want to go off piste should proudly shout about whatever it is that sets their efforts apart. Be as ready, in other words, to tell buyers they are going to get a Chenin-Gewürz or an OranChab as Domino’s is to promote its popular Texan BBQ pizza. 

Robert Joseph

 

Comments

About 20 years ago, I discovered Jean Thevenet’s "hint" of Botrytis cinerea Mâcon Clessé in the pages of Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate newsletter. He was a champion of its atypical style.

Drank my last bottle of the 2010 only a few months ago. Delightful.

Alois Kracher made botrytized Chardonnay:

"The wines of Alois Kracher, Burgenland, Austria"
URL: http://www.wineanorak.com/kracher.htm

I don't recall anyone criticizing him for his efforts.

At one time, Grande Marque Champagnes (destined for the royalty of Europe and Russia) were sweet.

Today, few enthusiasts seek out and drink demi-sec Champagnes. Good luck finding a Champagne Doux.

Tastes change -- and the marketplace accommodates.

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