Growing & Winemaking


Regional Typicity of Cool-Climate Rieslings

October 2017
by Demetra M. Perry and Anna Katharine Mansfield

The word Typicity is guaranteed to start animated discussion among sommeliers, wine educators and beverage directors alike. It is commonly used as a positive attribute when discussing varietal or regional wines, but it’s difficult to reach a consensus over how typicity is defined or achieved. Is typicity reflective of that other troublesome wine word, terroir? Differences exist between a Riesling produced in the Finger Lakes (FLX) AVA and one produced in Alsace, but what these differences are and who is qualified to evaluate them seems to change each time the question is posed.

While typicity and terroir are important concepts in wine quality, they have been hotly debated and poorly defined since the beginning of wine evaluation. The French designation Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée guarantees the quality of wine produced in a specific region, with sensory and chemical markers reflecting its geographical environment. This AOC designation, along with winemaking practices, are believed to generate a product that is typical, or representative, of its terroir.

Though there has been a recent shift in the sensory community to make wine evaluation more objective, variations in wine-production methods, vineyard conditions and wine evaluators produce mixed results in studies seeking to tie aspects of terroir with typicity. In a 2009 study, Lucie Perrin and Jerome Pagès concluded that appellation alone was not sufficient to determine the sensory attributes of a wine from a specific appellation, due to high variability between wines of the same region. When Perrin and Pagès took these wines and compared them on the global scale, however, using the Napping method, the results were closely correlated with appellation.2

Studies in Burgundy headed by Le Fur3 and Ballester4 reframed the contrast of wine origin and wine typicity by comparing product space (e.g., Chardonnay wines from Burgundy) with sensory space (i.e., wines that experts felt typified Burgundian Chardonnays). With these two examples, sensory space and product space have a lot of overlap but are not identical. In Le Fur’s experiment, for example, Burgundian Chenin Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne were often ranked as “very typical” of Burgundian Chardonnay, and shared sensory space but not product space. Such overlap is expected in any exploration of regional wine typicity and can be used to help define expert and consumer perceptions of “typical” wines.

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, Riesling is unquestionably king, and regional experts of all sorts—producers, retailers and die-hard local fans—all can tell you what a “typical” FLX Riesling is. Dry, with notes of apricot and lime zest? Semi-sweet, with luscious fruit? There’s not necessarily agreement among local experts, which is problematic when the industry poised to send a flagship product out into the global market. 

Typicity is generally defined by groups of experts who come to agreement over years of tasting. If the local experts don’t do it, typicity will be imposed by writers, sommeliers and tastemakers from the broader wine world. This raises several questions: Can an emerging wine region shape public notion of their own typicity? Should they? And do “experts” even experience wine the same way that their regular customers do?

Sensory evaluation study at Cornell
To understand the regional typicity of FLX Rieslings better, and to determine whether winemakers and consumers perceive FLX Rieslings the same way, the Cornell Enology Extension Lab devised a multi-stage sensory evaluation using wine experts, producers and consumers in a series of modified typicity trials, descriptive analysis and Napping analyses in 2011. The objectives of the work were: 
1) To define regional industry members’ sensory space for Finger Lakes Riesling typicity;
2) To compare FLX Riesling with Riesling styles from the Alsace, Pfalz, Rheingau and Washington state; 
3) To compare how evaluations of typicity vary between consumers and experts using the Napping method. 

Selecting typical Finger Lakes Rieslings: Arguably, the group most familiar with FLX Rieslings are those who work with it every day—producers and wine educators within the region. To select the most typical regional Rieslings, 20 panelists from local wineries and education centers were asked to evaluate 28 Rieslings from the FLX AVA. Following the method of Le Fur et al., panelists were given the following instructions: 

“Imagine that someone asks you to explain what a Finger Lakes Riesling wine is. To help this person understand, you may serve them a wine. With that in mind, you will be presented with Finger Lakes Rieslings from the 2009 vintage. For each wine, you must answer the following question: Is this wine a good example or a bad example of a Finger Lakes Riesling?”

They then marked a 15 cm line labeled “Very Bad Example” on one end and “Very Good Example” on the other. The four wines that received the highest average typicity ranking scores were selected as the benchmark samples for further tests. The identity of these wines was not disclosed to panelists.
Selecting typical world Rieslings: To assess the typicity of Rieslings from world regions, a broader panel of wine “experts” was necessary. In collaboration with the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, judges in the 2011 NY Wine and Food Classic competition were asked to participate. This panel of 20 wine professionals included three Masters of Wine and seven panelists with WSET level 3 training, as well as internationally known wine writers, judges, chefs and wine educators. Panelists were given flights of Rieslings (from vintages 2008-10) from Alsace, Pfalz, the Rheingau and Washington state, and were asked to rank their typicity as described for FLX Rieslings above. The three wines from each region that received the highest average typicity ranking were selected for further study.

Note that both the FLX and world panels showed quite a bit of disagreement in their typicity rankings, as shown by the fairly large standard deviations (see figure on page 76). In standard typicity ranking studies, a much larger group of samples and several non-typical wines would be used to achieve greater judge agreement. The modified typicity ranking used for selection purposes was expected to show lower agreement, which is why average rankings were used.

Descriptions and perceptions
How do consumers describe Rieslings? A 14-member panel of local consumers who drink white wine at least 1 to 3 times per week was assembled, and panelist acuity was assessed in a screening that required them to differentiate Rieslings and Chardonnays from the same FLX producer. The panelists were then given the 16 wines from the typicity test and were asked to develop a consensus attribute list including sensory reference standards. Over two more sessions, panelists again were given the wines to taste blind and were asked to indicate the orthonasal (sniffing) or retronasal (aromas during exhale) presence of their defined attributes on a checklist.

To visualize consumer perception of regional wine typicity, sensory scores from all wines within a region were averaged by sensory attribute. While there were general similarities among regions for some attributes, like the floral “linalool” attribute in orthonasal olfaction, considerable variation was found among wines, with green apple most typical for Rheingau Rieslings and peach, caramel and tropical notes more indicative of Riesling from Pfalz. Interestingly, while attributes classed under “berry” were found in both, the “raspberry” was noted more for orthonasal olfaction and “strawberry” for retronasal olfaction. Similarly, for the tropical fruits, “mango” was more noticeable during orthonasal olfaction. 

Attributes consumers associated with Finger Lakes Rieslings were of particular interest, so the four benchmark 2009 FLX Rieslings—Ravines Dry Riesling, Red Newt Cellars Sawmill Creek Vineyards Riesling, Heron Hill Dry Riesling and Sheldrake Point Dry Riesling—also were graphed separately to show individual differences. While there was expected variation between orthonasal and retronasal descriptors, many of the panelists noted raspberry along with lime and grapefruit zest on the nose, followed by linalool and petrol on the palate.

The question then became whether individual differences among benchmarked regional wines are greater than the differences between wines in regional groupings. In other words, if asked to group wines, would tasters differentiate FLX Rieslings from those produced in other regions?

How do consumers and producers perceive Rieslings? After completing the descriptive exercise, panelists were presented with 17 wines (16 samples plus one in replicate, Washington state’s Kung Fu Girl Riesling) for a projective mapping, or “napping,” exercise. Panelists were instructed to take a large sheet of paper (or nappe, the French word for tablecloth) and place similar samples closer together and dissimilar samples further apart. They were encouraged to make as many groups of wines as they wished, and could use any criteria to sort the wines into groups. In a separate session, the panel of FLX industry members who participated in the original typicity ranking exercise also were asked to complete the napping test under the same conditions.

The results
Following analysis and hierarchical clustering, researchers found that consumers had arranged the wine into four groups, placing all three wines from the Pfalz, one from the Rheingau and one from Washington into one group major group, and the rest into a second. The second group was further divided into three subgroups, with three of the Finger Lakes Rieslings placed with two wines from Washington state and two from the Rheingau. The fourth FLX Riesling was grouped with Hugel from the Alsace, and the other two Alsatian wines were grouped with the Kung Fu Girl replicate. 

This division of the replicates calls the acuity of the consumer panel into question, especially since the two were in groups that were not closely related. Comparison of the groupings with the checklists suggest that Sheldrake Point and Hugel were differentiated by higher perception of petrol and black pepper in the nose, and lime zest and grapefruit zest in retronasal aroma. The other three FLX wines were not differentiated by specific aroma characteristics.

In comparison, the industry panel divided the wines into two primary groups (see right). Group one was further divided into two subgroups, each containing wines from various regions. Three of the FLX Rieslings were grouped with two from the Pfalz, and the third was grouped with a mixture of wines from Alsace, the Rheingau and Washington state.

The groupings from both panels suggest that the product space of these wines (i.e., their region of origin) is not completely congruent with their sensory space, and that the sensory space is perceived differently for consumers and producers. It is not surprising, then, that the FLX wines were not singled out as entirely distinctive, since no other regions were. One local industry member interpreted this result as an assurance that FLX wines don’t have impaired quality, either. To him, the fact that they were grouped with other world-class wines implied that their quality is on par.

A closer look at the different consumer and industry divisions suggests that the two groups are using different attributes to sort wines. Consumers grouped most of the FLX wines with wines from Washington state and the Rheingau, while industry members placed them primarily with the Pfalz. This may suggest that industry members have a more discriminating means of categorizing the wines and a more uniform idea of FLX style, which is expected. It can be argued that the difference between typical Rieslings from the Pfalz and the Rheingau are relatively subtle and may not be meaningful to the average American white wine consumer. 

In general, however, it seems that both consumers and winema kers find FLX Rieslings to be more similar to those from Germany than from Alsace, and that winemakers further differentiate them from Washington state styles.

A Riesling is a Riesling is…a Riesling?
Through a novel multi-step process, researchers used the inherent expertise of regional winemakers, world wine experts and trained consumers to begin to define the regional typicity of Finger Lakes Riesling, their relation to world Rieslings and consumers’ perception of the wines. While the lines of regional and sensory identity may not be straightforward, producers and consumers seem to agree on the general parameters of Finger Lakes Riesling typicity and have a robust set of sensory standards to facilitate further conversation. Lime zest and peach, anyone? 

Demetra Perry is laboratory manager for Cornell’s Extension Enology Lab, and Dr. Anna Katharine Mansfield is associate professor of enology at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. 
This work was made possible by financial support from the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, and extensive help from the International Riesling Foundation and the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. The New York Wine and Food Classic was invaluable in setting up and participating in sensory evaluations. Dr. Diane Schmitt managed the local industry and consumer wine panels.

[1] Yves, C., C. Soline, T.S. Marie, S. Alain, B. Gérard, C. Véronique. (2010). Typicality Related to Terror: From Conceptual to Perceptual Representation. Study of the Links with Enological Practices. VIII International Terroir Congress 6:32-38.
[2] Perrin, L., J. Pagès. (2009). A Methodology for the Analysis of Sensory Typicality Judgments. Journal of Sensory Studies, 24(5):749-773. 
[3] Le Fur, Y., J. Jaffre, D. Valentin. (2009). Sensory Space of Typical Chardonnay Wines and Other Wines, and its Relation to Volatile Composition. In: Sensory Development of Cool-Climate Varietals during Wine Fermentation. Proceedings of the XXIth Entrentiens Scientifiques Lallemand. Pp 27- 33. Geisenheim Institute.
[4] Ballester, J., C. Dacremont, Y. Le Fur, P. Etiéviant. (2005). The Role of Olfaction in the Elaboration and use of the Chardonnay Wine Concept. Food Quality and Preference, 16:351-359.


Posted on 10.20.2017 - 09:13:58 PST
Great article. I am a wine educator, chemist, and native of the Finger Lake Region. I'm going to try the sensory evaluation of FLX dry Rieslings with some friends, just for fun.
Eugene Losey