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Typicity, I hate you!

By |  September 24 2008

Take the French label-approval process: the official tasting of wine to see whether it qualifies for AOC status. When wines of great character, of which the judges should be proud, are rejected in the name of so-called typicity, one cannot help but think that what the word really stands for is all the habits and hypocrisies of people who neither know nor care. Having frequently taken part in national wine contests, I find it deplorable that the most ordinary wines win approval, while those that stand out from the crowd-more complete in weak vintages, more intense and vibrant in great years, or simply unpredictable as they age-are routinely regarded as suspect and turned down. Put all those wines together for one extraordinary "Rejects Show" and you would surely have the cream of French wine growers, misunderstood by their peers.

Top-ranking professionals see a slippery slope toward increasingly misguided wine tastings-in which they increasingly refuse to take part, so as not to endorse the incompetence of others. France has therefore decided to appoint independent judges to rule on the awarding of AOC labels-which is precisely where things start to get tricky. There are the problems of training these independent judges; defining their mandate; teaching them about threshold quality-that essential ingredient that makes a wine reflect its origins rather than betray them. There is also the question of redress for those wrongly judged-producers of highly eligible, even benchmark products who find themselves excluded from the AOC sanctum, with all the consequent economic repercussions. I could fill a book with all the senseless reasons for exclusion given at some of the tastings I have attended. Oxidation is regularly mistaken for reduction, and vice versa. Volatile acidity is detected in a wine that contains none. Barrel samples are said to be "corked," and wines that have never seen wood are said to be overoaked. Others are dismissed for their lack or excess of color on the basis of some imagined defect in taste that has nothing to do with the color. Producers are constantly suspected of cheating or unethical tampering, by jealous people who judge others by their own dubious standards.

The difficult art of wine tasting requires a considerable measure of humility and a good sense of humor. Becoming a wine taster takes a long time and does not stop with analytical tasting (judging a wine according to measurable criteria).

It also requires a thorough understanding of local traditions and those unchanging characteristics noticed over the years that vary with local climate and soil type in each appellation, and even with each cru. Any certification body unable to handle these requirements-now or in the future-should be forced to confine itself to the old practice of excluding all non-standard wines with serious flaws, providing these were backed up by chemical analysis. Either we leave it to the conventional critics-journalists, merchants, sommeliers, plus of course the general public-to make aesthetic judgments about the typicity or success of wines. Or-and don’t think we haven’t thought of this-we let market forces do their work, and we do away with AOCs altogether, along with all their cumbersome apparatus. We all know, alas, how unpopular that idea is with government and industry. Even so, it might be the best way to make producers, merchants, and consumers answerable for their actions-helping to educate and liberate the general public.

There remains the sensitive question of judgment by experts, such as wine journalists. Personally, I was shocked by the conservatism and lack of imagination or sense of wonder displayed by many of my colleagues at tastings of the 2003 vintage. Conditions that year resulted in entirely atypical wines. Mother Nature also surprised us in 1947, producing wines with exceptionally high alcohol and intense fruit, many of them spoiled by excessive volatile acidity or even residual sugar. The year was nevertheless hailed by critics as a brilliant vintage- and none of them complained about a lack of typicity! It is impossible to imagine anyone more typically English than the great Harry Waugh, the man who made Harveys of Bristol rich by ordering thousands of bottles of the great Pomerols. Nature did it again in 2003, producing Pinot Noirs in Burgundy and Cabernets in the Médoc that were absolutely superb but nontraditional. The first reviews make damning reading. Wine lovers on American tasting forums dismiss the Burgundies as being uncharacteristic of Pinot Noir, confusing single variety with single origin. A few snobbish English critics even suggest that anyone with a taste for a monumental wine like Château Pavie needs their head examining. It isn’t everyone, of course, who likes a Bordeaux built like a Côtes du Rhône. But to say that Bordeaux wine is badly made, when Côtes du Rhône wines from the same vintage get good marks, seems incompatible with our duty as experts. We all have individual preferences, but every now and then we must be capable of admiring a monstrous beauty.

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