Should Typicity Be Important When Evaluating Wine?

I recently noted when I posted about how I taste wines for review at Wine Enthusiast that I take typicity into consideration. Typicity - in French, typicité - is a combination of varietal and, to some extent, regional correctness. For example, how much does a Merlot taste like a typical Merlot? How much does it taste like a Washington Merlot? 

After receiving a comment questioning whether this should considered when evaluating wines, I thought I would expound more on the topic.

There are four main cases where I see typicity coming into play when evaluating wine. In the first, a wine is a prototype for the variety in question in the region. That is to say, it checks all of the boxes for what that variety most typically smells and tastes like in Washington, along with its associated structure. The second case is where a wine is atypical for the variety, but these atypical characteristics do not impact its overall quality. The third case is where a wine’s atypical character affects its quality. The final case is where there really is no reference point, rendering typicity more or less meaningless. I’ll explore each of these in turn.

To me, a good example of the first case, where a wine is a prototype for a variety, is the 2017 Seven Hills Winery Walla Walla Valley Merlot that I recently sampled. From the first sniff, the wine sings of Washington Merlot. You smell it and think, “This has to be Merlot.” You taste it and think, “It has to be from Washington.” In fact, this wine was part of the inspiration for the 2020 Washington Merlot Challenge (and on an unrelated, note, 2017 is looking to be the best Merlot vintage in Washington since 2012).

What makes this wine so prototypic? It is vibrantly red fruited, along with plentiful amounts of cocoa aromas and flavors, both often hallmarks of Merlot in Washington in my experience. It also bears our state’s signature acid and tannin structure for this variety, with Washington Merlot often bringing more tannic heft. In short, this wine is a prototype for the variety in the state. This is to the wine’s benefit.

In contrast, from the 2016 vintage, I have had several varietally labeled Merlots that I rated highly but noted that they drank a bit more like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux-style blend because of a prominent herbal influence on the aromas and flavors. This herbal note is not uncommon in Merlots from this vintage due to the cool finish and larger crop in 2016. It is, however, uncommon from Washington more generally and also uncommon for the variety elsewhere.

In these cases, the scores were not impacted, but the tasting note was. I made mention of the herbal qualities being a bit atypical for Merlot. If a consumer is purchasing that bottle of wine, I want them to understand that, yes the wine is high quality, but won’t drink like a typical Washington Merlot if that’s what they’re looking for.

I’ve had other Merlots from the 2016 vintage that, because of the cool temperatures and larger crop, veered very far into the green, such that they bore little if any resemblance to the variety that was on the label. These were very far outside what I would expect or what a consumer would expect from a Merlot. This was to the detriment of the wine. In these cases, both scores and tasting notes were affected.

Here’s where I believe the discussion of typicity gets more interesting. Would I feel differently about the wines above if it were a variety that tends to have a bit more greenness, like Cabernet Sauvignon or even more so say Cabernet Franc or Carménère?

It is possible. Perhaps in the latter cases, the score would have been impacted a bit less, as strong herbal qualities can be more expected in those varieties. In the former case, I would have removed mention in the tasting note of the atypical nature.

This is not to say, however, that the score would go up dramatically if the variety were different. A wine isn’t going to be 85 points because it’s a green Merlot and suddenly be 90 points because it’s  Carménère. But the score might go up a couple points, as significant herbal influences are more within the realm of expectation for a variety like Carménère, depending on the other aspects of the wine.

What about when there is no reference point for a wine? The idea of typicity obviously gets more difficult the further away you get from varieties that are common in Washington or elsewhere in the world. In fact, one can get so far away that the concept becomes meaningless.

Washington produces over 80 varieties. There are a number being produced that lack reference points inside the state and in some cases even outside the state, such as when a variety is typically used as a blending component but here is being made as a varietal wine. This is part of the enjoyment and challenge of reviewing wines in this area.

When that’s the case, I revert to evaluating the wines by evaluating the aromas and flavors as well as factors like overall balance, complexity, depth, intensity, finish, and length. At its most basic without any point of reference it can be, “How enjoyable is this wine as a red/white wine?”

Bottom line, the more data points I have in terms of typicity, the more meaningful those data points can be. The less data, the less significant it is.

For example, I’ve tasted thousands of Washington Cabernet Sauvignons over the years as well as a great number of Cabernets from around the world. I might still taste one that is completely unlike anything I’ve tasted from Washington or elsewhere, or at least notably different. If this were the case, I would at the very least mention this distinctiveness in the tasting note.

Conversely, I will be tasting my first varietal Clairette Blanche from Washington later this year. This wine currently lacks a reference point in the state, and I will simply be evaluating it as a white, or in this case sparkling, wine.

Will all subsequent Washington Clairette Blanches be evaluated against that wine as a standard? No. But tasting the wine, I will start to build a mental database that might at some point become meaningful. Or not!

Reference points only become interesting once a standard is established, not necessarily by an individual wine but by a group of wines. But they are not always established.

For example, while I have a sense of Tempranillo from certain regions of the world, Washington, in my mind, has yet to establish a clear identity with this variety, though some quality examples do exist. Instead, the variety is notable for its considerable range in the state (with clone no doubt playing a factor in this too). Perhaps that changes at some point, but at this point, typicity bears little impact when reviewing Tempranillo in Washington for me.

How does the concept of terroir or regional correctness tie in to typicity? Wines should ideally taste like where they come from. But typically on any wine there is both a varietal influence and a growing region influence. Ideally both are apparent.

For example, a Merlot tastes like Merlot but also tastes specifically like a Washington Merlot. In rare instances, like, for example, the Rocks District in Walla Walla Valley, the growing region can even trump variety or at least be in front of the variety. And that’s fine. I wouldn’t ding a Grenache for tasting more like the Rocks District in some respects more than it does Washington or world Grenache. In fact those distinctive qualities can be part of what make it so interesting and compelling in my opinion.

In the case of Tempranillo I gave above, am I dinging all Washington Tempranillo because it doesn’t taste like Rioja? No. It shouldn’t! But I’m not clear yet on what exactly Washington Tempranillo does taste like, so typicity doesn’t play as much of a role. I will also note that, of course certain varieties, such as Syrah, have more range associated with their presentation than other varieties.

So how important is typicity when evaluating wines? Overall, it is just a piece of information in the equation. Sometimes it can become an important factor, and other times it can have no bearing at all.

Image by Richard Duval

Sean P. Sullivan

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