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On typicity in wine: Bandwidth

When it comes to typicity in wine, it’s increasingly hard to make generalizations, says David Schildknecht.

The diversification that characterizes viticulture and winemaking in our new millennium appears to have developed paradoxically in parallel with consensus concerning where these diverse paths should lead (see WFW 67, p.48). Examples of such consensus are a more catholic conception of ripeness, a new paradigm of vine health, emphasis on vineyard sustainability, de-emphasis of technology, and preference for moderate alcohol. But for all of that communality, with the resultant wines we are back in the realm of greatly enhanced diversity.

Among the widely-shared goals is to render wines distinctively reflective of their place of origin—which itself guarantees significant diversity. Unless, of course, terroir expression of the sort envisioned proves impossible to achieve. But organoleptic evidence has been accumulating to dispel that worry, which should surprise no observant enophile. Given the number of winegrowers in diverse regions, employing disparate grapes, who can reveal how much difference in taste there is from one vineyard to another nearby, demonstrating distinctiveness from one commune or region to another should be achievable.

Communality of methods and stylistic ideals is what makes it meaningful to inquire how wines with a shared name tended to taste during any particular period in history, much as we can ask what characterized musical performance in a given era (see WFW 64, pp.102–09.) Such inquiries in matters vinous involve speculation where they reach back to times and places whose young wines no living person can recollect. But to pick a familiar example from not far back, it’s possible in Bordeaux to describe a significant—one could even argue, a dramatic—transformation in both methodology and resultant taste characteristics within the 1980s—even more clearly if we widen that scope to 15 years. And this Bordelais transformation is familiar to most serious enophiles born anytime between 1930 and 1970. No-one would claim that the stylistic paradigm of the 1990s still applies. But it is now difficult to characterize a single shift or style.

German Riesling offers another recent example familiar to many wine lovers of dramatic change even as measured along very obvious parameters. A typical Mosel or Rheingau estate during the 1970s or early 1980s bottled a diverse range of Rieslings identified by their permutations of vineyard and Prädikat designations. Most were rendered in old 1,000- or 1,200-liter casks, finishing with between 9% and 12% ABV and (excepting for the occasional product of desiccated berries) 10–60g/l of residual sugar (RS). Twelve or 15 years later, the range on offer from such an estate could be no less confidently characterized, but was radically different. Vinification in stainless steel had become commonplace. Riesling of well under 10g/l RS was not only common, it was often the rule; and such wines frequently ascended to 13% ABV or higher. On the other hand, sweet wines generally started at a minimum of 40g/l RS, and in consequence tended to range from 7.5–9.5% ABV. 

Today, any such attempt to offer a general characterization of Mosel or Rheingau Riesling is bound to fail. Notwithstanding the important role played by the VDP and that organization’s tendency to prescribe classificatory and marketing parameters, the stylistic and methodological gap between, say, the Rieslings of Clemens Busch and those of Christoph Schaefer, or Wilhelm Weil and Peter Jacob Kühn, is simply too great, even before adding to diversity in gross chemistry the host of unquantifiable differences that result from varied vineyard regimen, press-house protocol, and length of élevage.

Typicity in wine: The coming tug of war

Cutting across regional differences are certain yet more obvious sources of contemporary stylistic diversity. If even a dozen years ago one had asked the nature of Grüner Veltliner from Lower Austria’s vast Weinviertel, or of Chenin grown in Touraine, it could have been confidently said that these were white wines largely bottled to capture freshness and fruitiness. Today, some of the most intriguing examples of these once better-defined genres aren’t even “white” in the old sense of that word, being products of skin fermentation; and many reflect long stays on the lees as well as other decisions by their authors that conduce to the opposite of fresh and fruity, wines “rewarded” by the authorities with refusal of AOC status.

What counts as red wine has undergone a diversification obvious already to the eye. Indeed, the very fact that actually red, rather than deep purple, dark garnet, or near-black, wines once again hold wide consumer appeal is something no one would have thought possible two decades ago. Add to this the rediscovery of fermentative maceration of white grapes and a 21st-century respectability that has spurred freewheeling experimentation in the once-unfashionable genre known as rosé, and consumers are benefiting from an unprecedented bandwidth in color that reflects a corresponding diversity in flavor.

The extent to which appellation ought to imply certain methodological and stylistic parameters is a question so often touched on in this series of columns as to render specific references superfluous. And there are important voices—Michael Moosbrugger, chairman of Austria’s Traditionsweingüter, being an eloquent example—who believe that fidelity to certain shared methods and resultant wine styles is not just implicated in the essential nature of an appellation but also represents the respect due to one’s fellow vintners, insofar as all are going to sell their wines under a shared name (even that of a particular vineyard). Between partisans of typicity in wine in this sense, and consumers enjoying an increasingly wide bandwidth, is likely to emerge a tug of war that will be looked back on as characteristic of the 2020s.  

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