Sunrise in the Napa Valley

Sunrise in the  Napa Valley

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Must a wine be true to and representative of its type?


Lettie Teague’s 10/23/14 Wall Street Journal article on Pinot Grigio—specifically the high quality, northern Italian producers—brought to mind an experience I had some time ago with a California version of Pinot Grigio.  After swirling, sniffing and sipping, I quickly checked the label to verify what I just tasted.  It was labeled Pinot Grigio, but for this old, palate-drenched wine geek it tasted more like Pinot Gris (Gree), with the unfortunate addition of many winemakers’ favorite seasoning: oak.  While not an earth-shaking, world class wine issue, I felt tricked because the wine was not true or representative of its type as indicated by the label.

Pinot Grigio?  Pinot Gris?  What’s the big deal Barras?  Aren’t they the same?   Well . . . yes.  But, really . . . no.  Even though vinified and labeled differently, those two wines originate from the same grape.  What differentiates them stylistically is vineyard location and weather patterns, as well as winemaking practices.  Anything labeled Pinot Grigio is typically known as the Italian version, while Pinot Gris is known as the Alsatian version.  Tooth-stained wine enthusiasts know it is also the same grape that underlies Rulander and Grauburgender in Germany and Austria.  However it is the Grigio/Gris versions that account for the bulk of the world’s production. 

Although Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris share the same family tree, they express themselves quite differently when bottled.  They are as much alike as the svelte, mucho-attractive, actress Ashley Judd and her singing, Reubenesque, half-sister Wynonna Judd.  While the DNA link is there, their very visible, personal characteristics are displayed quite differently. 

Except for those originating in Italy’s Alto Adige region, Pinot Grigio is typically an inexpensive, simple, light-bodied, crisp, faintly aromatic quaff that ranges from avoidable to enjoyable.  In the main, most Grigio drinkers are not in search of or expect structure and complexity; a slight hint of being vinous or “wine-like” is all they ask of it.  It’s a wildly popular style of wine, and its sales have been soaring for years.  

In contrast, the Pinot Gris model—particularly those from Alsace—is Grigio’s polar opposite: full bodied, complex, mildly aromatic with low acidity, and when aged some writers claim it can evolve into a serious challenge to the best of White Burgundy.  While many wine pros and seasoned enthusiasts prefer this version, it is not nearly as popular as Grigio.  However, both styles, it should be pointed out, have their loyal followers, and it is unlikely that one will migrate from one preference to the other.

 In the first paragraph I griped about the Pinot Grigio not being true to or representative of its type, and it got me thinking about an interesting term from the lexicon of geekspeak:  Typicity.  Borrowed from the French (typicite) and Italians (typicita), typicity is a quality attribute that relates to how accurately a wine’s underlying
 characteristics and/or origins are revealed.   For a gross example, is an alcoholic, full-bodied, brambly, Burgundian Pinot Noir true to its type, or is it more atypically like a California Zinfandel?  Such a Pinot Noir, while maybe interesting and drinkable, is said to lack typicity.  Similarly, what can we conclude about a wine that is labeled as Pinot Grigio, but does not suggest that lively northern Italian wine in the slightest?

So what is going on here?  Is California delivering a new typicity?  Or is this another example of California’s rugged individualism in wine making?  (Make what you want, call it what you want.)  Further, is this lack of predictability in the best interests of the wine-consuming public? On the other hand, if you’re a terroirist and believe that a wine’s provenance explains why the wine is uniquely different from other wannabes, then the notion of typicity also becomes quite relevant and important to you.

For those of you now rolling your eyes in exasperation or disbelief, or have not already hit the delete key for this article, please hang on for the read-worthy close to this rant. 

In the 10/31/14 Wine Spectator issue James Laube noted that the bulk-style production of Charles Shaw wines, (aka Two Buck Chuck) sold through Trader Joe’s retail outlets, “recently passed  60 million cases in total sales which comes to 720 million bottles.” 

Even though it seems to win occasional tasting events, it is conventionally accepted that there is little, if any, discernible varietal character, let alone typicity to be found in those wines.  It is simply a pretty good $2 bottle of wine (now $3 apparently) that promises nothing more than being red or white and having some wine-like attributes.  After 720 million confirmations, apparently, that is more than adequate.