Reconsidering typicality in wine

Typicality in wine is never more important than for tasting exams, and the sourcing process for the Master of Wine programme has to be highly meticulous. It's a misconception that MW exams are full of obscure varieties from unknown regions - in fact, the vast majority of wines are intended to be as representative as possible, giving students the maximum chance of identifying the wine correctly. 

The question is, what constitutes typicality and who determines this? It's an issue that is especially pertinent in the era of natural/orange wines, which can bear little resemblance to the what are perceived to be the 'conventional' wines of their origin. That isn't to criticise them, but to emphasise how extremely dissimilar two wines made from the same raw material can be.

But who's to say which version is the most authentic? If we look at wine style over time, there can be huge changes in what is considered typical of a region or variety. Ten years ago, many South African wines were characterised by a burnt rubber aroma that was variously attributed to viral infection in the vineyard or reductive handling in the winery. Whatever the cause, that has now been largely eradicated, and modern South African reds, especially top-quality Rhône blends from regions such as Swartland, are demonstrating a new typicality.

Similarly, weedy English whites from the 1970s and 1980s bear little resemblance to the award-wnning bottle-fermented English sparkling wines of today. Whereas red bordeaux from the first half of the 20th century was much lighter in alcohol, body and flavour than most of today's examples. 

Every wine region evolves, which makes any declaration about typicality potentially risky. (The picture shows a white Chilean wine made from wild-grown País grapes that didn't go through veraison. Hardly typical of anything!)

Another more nuanced example can be found in Burgundy. Generally speaking, we are taught things such as Gevrey-Chambertin being more dark fruited than Vosne-Romanée, which is more elegant than Pommard. Not only are those huge generalisations with loosely defined adjectives, but as winemaking has evolved, it becomes much less feasible to be definitive about such divisions.

One development of this argument could be that origin and variety are no longer as important as they once were. As climate continues to change around the world, and winemaking skills and techniques develop, perhaps the influence of terroir is less relevant, and it is more apposite to talk about styles of wine, regardless of their origin and ingredients.

Such a scenario seems unthinkable (even if it would make the MW exam a whole lot easier). Wine is, famously, 'geography in a bottle' and this sense of place is fundamental to its appeal, and to how we understand wine. Indeed, many would argue that wine has a duty to reflect the typical expectations of its variety and origin - otherwise it is somehow at fault.

Yet typicality in wine is a not a fixed concept. So we are left with a dichotomy between being open-minded to ensure that innovation still occurs, while wanting to preserve the typical qualities that make appellations unique.