The Ticklish Topic of Typicity

The Ticklish Topic of Typicity

Politics, religion and sports are conversational stones best left unturned, but the wine world has its own ideological lightning rod, especially in Italy. What has sparked polarizing opinions and coarse behavior from verbal insults to activities ending in criminal charges among some of the most respected producers, winemakers, journalists and professionals of the grape? Typicity.

The debate surrounding the incendiary subject has to do with whether typicity is an ideal producers should strive for when making wines, and consequently, whether wine writers should consider it when scoring those wines.

Working towards a standard definition of typicity presents opportunity for debate. In encyclopedias of wine, the term is used to describe how faithfully a wine reflects varietal origins and characteristics. As far as I know, the word typicity (if it is a word) is only used in wine talk (though the French and the Italians refer respectively to typicité and tipicità in broader terms). Barolo and Barbaresco from Piedmont will show Nebbiolo typicity—ethereal tones of tar, licorice, red rose and tobacco—because those wines are 100 percent expressions of that grape. If a Barolo or Barbaresco presents characteristics not associated with Nebbiolo, that wine could be described as “lacking typicity.”

Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine calls it “typicality” and defines it as “a wine’s quality of being typical of its type, geographical provenance, and even its vintage year.”

The generally understood definition is too limiting; the concept should also embrace qualities that make a wine typical of a culture, a people, and most importantly, a tradition. Typicity in Amarone is achieved thanks to a wine-making technique—that of appassimento, whereby grapes are air dried before being pressed into wine. This process is linked to a specific craft found only in the Veneto. In the case of Amarone, typicity is born from tradition.

But what about oak? That is a sore subject among typicity enthusiasts. Winemakers in many regions, like Piedmont and Tuscany, traditionally used big oak containers or casks. Thanks to the diminished surface area of wine against wood, the large containers impart fewer spice and wood-driven aromas, giving more prominence to fruit. But thirty or so years ago, the use of small containers, or barrique, gained popularity, giving birth to softer, more plush and concentrated wines.

For hardcore followers of this philosophy, large wood containers equal typicity while the wines born of barrique exhibits none. Ironically, many of the same wine critics who may have awarded a high score to a wine because of its soft, velvety, oak-driven nuances, are now subtracting points from those wines for “lack of typicity.”

At the Barbera Meeting tastings earlier this year in Piedmont, a fight erupted among producers and journalists and insults were exchanged. The journalists’ camp claimed Barbera producers had gone too far in taming the grape’s naturally high acidity (with the use of oak or by harvesting overripe fruit) and had therefore lost sight of typicity. The producers said they were only doing so in order to make the wine more palatable to consumers who don’t like acidic wines. Did the producers sell out? Maybe.

Problems stemming from the ideology of typicity rocked the small town of Montalcino two years ago when it was alleged that some major producers had illegally blended grapes not allowed in the production of Brunello di Montalcino. The local consorzio—the institution charged with safeguarding, enforcing and, until recently, policing typicity—was accused of not doing its job. But everyone knows that those so-called illegal wines have scored well and consumers love them. They may have lacked typicity, but many were excellent.

Italy is at the red hot center of this debate because it has more variables for expressing typicity than any other wine producer on earth. This is due to the country’s vast patrimony of indigenous grapes (more than 700 varieties are used commercially), its varied geography and its reliance on traditional winemaking methods (like appassimento and botte grande). The French can claim terroir as their contribution to the general lexicon of enology, but the Italians truly have tipicità nailed down.

As a general policy, reviewers at Wine Enthusiast Magazine do not award points for typicity. As our tasting director has expressed: “We should not be rewarding wines for being true to type (exhibiting typicity), but for being extraordinary examples of the type (by definition, atypical).”

As someone who tastes hundreds of Italian wines each month, I cannot help but feel a tinge of excitement when I recognize typicity in my blind flights—the delicate nuances that spark recognition of a vineyard, producer or territory. Some of them display subtle faults or excessive rusticity, but that’s why I like them. More and more wine drinkers are waking up to the concept, and the new dimension of pleasure it can afford. It’s time for industry insiders to make a cool assessment of the concept, so we’re all talking the same language.

Published on August 23, 2010