Tasting notes, varietals, grapes - anything related to wine
Eric Gerber's thread about the most complex wines people had tasted got me thinking:
When is complexity a good thing? And what is it anyway?
Reading the list of the wines in the other thread, I thought, "These all sound like great wines. But is it complexity that made them great?"
I certainly use the term, and I see it as a positive when contrasted with monolithic wines that are, say, all oak or all ripe, primary fruit, or underripe and shrill. When older wines develop tertiary elements that seems to be a complexity and a plus. Botrytised wines can have layers of different elements, both fruity and rot-related, that make them intriguing.
But, on the other hand, some of the most gawdawful wines (e.g., Sierre Carche) are certainly complex. Start with some overripe, perhaps slightly raisined fruit, put it through a hot fermentation, and perhaps some unsanitary wine-making and you'll get complexity -- VA, some caramelization/oxidation and goodness knows what else.
Oaky chardonnays may well have more complexity than a simpler, unoaked one. But is the former necessarily better? Depends.
Conversely, a good riesling Kabinett can be enormously charming and delicious, yet I'm not sure it's more complex than a pungent sauvignon blanc -- just more appealing.
As I've thought about, I find myself feeling that complexity isn't necessarily a virtue in its own right, though its absence might, other things being equal, be a negative.
In my own case, I think I use the term when I find a wine challenges me a bit -- when I have to sip it over and over to elicit different aromas, and each time another facet shows itself. But, honestly, that might just reduce to saying that it was tannic or acidic or backward. In other cases, I might just mean that I'm getting interesting layers of fruit that seem very pure, but the wine might actually be simpler than if had been put in barriques.
So what are we talking about when we say complex? Does it mean anything more than, "I really liked this a lot?"
"We've all heard that a mil
Complexity is one of those things that makes me invoke the old "necessary but not sufficient" phrase. That is, it's a necessary component of a great wine for me, but it's not, alone, sufficient to make a wine great. Other criteria that need to be there are balance and quality. Quality feels vague, but what I mean is the avoidance of things like your description of Sierra Carche. Add in a measure of transparency and I'm more or less there.
Note that I've nothing against straightforward wines... but I don't count them as great and they'd better be priced like quaffers. A tasty Riesling, CdR, Pinot, etc that just goes down easy can rock, but those wines don't make my cut for being considered great.
Dang Rick, I think that's right
This whole "complexity" thing has been a pet peeve of mine for awhile. Seems like I find myself trying to come up with a new way to say the same thing every time so I'll just beg everyone's indulgence and copy-paste a bit on the issue I posted a few years ago.
Cacophony and its Discontents
A comment by Japanese chef Hiromitsu Nozaki in a Wine Spectator review of the Tokyo restaurant scene recently jumped out at me. Nozaki said, “My role is to remove—not add—to the ingredients, so that we can see the purity, the simplicity, and the essence of each dish. It is much harder to remove than to add.” It’s an unusual perspective to read in a wine magazine, since the prevailing standard of quality for wine is often assumed to be the opposite of simplicity—complexity. In wine jargon, “simple” is always a pejorative, never associated with purity or other virtues. Complex is better than simple the same way that big is better than small. Since so many people accept this so unquestioningly, it is worth considering what they mean when they call a wine complex, and what they might be undervaluing when deriding the simple.
In his new book Desert Island Wine, Miles Lambert-Gócz traces the origin of complexity’s use in winespeak to H. Warner Allen’s 1932 book The Romance of Wine. “Allen,” writes Lambert-Gócz, “made reference to complexity by name several times while discussing how grapes ought to be processed so as to maximize the multiplicity of ‘nuances.’” People use the term in a similar manner today. A wine with a “multiplicity of nuances” is presumed to be complex, even though this kind of multiplicity often results in a cacophony or disjointedness. A wine with its elements in perfect harmony is often mistaken for simple, since it is not possible to isolate every nuance and reduce it to a “descriptor” in a “tasting note.”
The “tasting note” is by now the principal medium through which people of all experience levels communicate about wine, and like any medium it dictates a message independent of its content. Specifically, the need to communicate about wine in tasting notes results in a revision of aesthetic standards to favor those characteristics easiest to express in tasting notes. “[W]ith our nose to larboard,” writes Lambert-Gócz, “we chase the fleeting nuances in our frantic effort to determine the relative complexity of the wines coming before us. As if all aromatic sensations could be named, and none would overlap, we attempt what in effect amounts to a headcount of sensations which we are ready to accept as the definitive indicator of quality: Complex, rich flavor with suggestions of plums, cherries, capers, violets, mint, raspberries, green pepper, almonds, cedar, and an undertone of chocolate.” And as a result of writing in such “tortured prose likening wine to 57 different fruits (the Heinz Variety Tasting method),” as Joe Dressner puts it, “we try to pigeonhole a wine into the confines of these external evaluators. We do not taste and drink the wine for what it is, but for what it approximates in wine tasting lexicon.”
Interestingly, one comestible which the Heinz Variety Tasting method is especially useless to describe is Heinz ketchup itself, which only distantly tastes like its primary ingredient (tomatoes) and has no other individually discernible constituent flavors. This was the subject of a long Malcolm Gladwell piece attempting to resolve the conundrum of why nobody’s been able to improve on Heinz. The article is premised on the fact that while ketchup may seem pedestrian, it is actually a very sophisticated concoction—“alone among the condiments on the table, ketchup could deliver sweet and sour and salty and bitter and umami, all at once.” But just as importantly is the way in which it delivers these things. Heinz ketchup is strong in “amplitude,” “the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that ‘bloom’ in the mouth”:
When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket. “The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous,” Judy Heylmun, a vice-president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey, says. “They have beautiful notes—all flavors are in balance. It’s very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola it’s”—and here she made a series of pik! pik! pik! sounds—“all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike out. And then the cinnamon. Citrus and brown spice notes are top notes and very volatile, as opposed to vanilla, which is very dark and deep. A really cheap store brand will have a big, fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything.” . . . Generic colas and ketchups have . . . a hook—a sensory attribute that you can single out, and ultimately tire of.
It’s that multiplicity of hooks that is often mistaken for complexity. But, as Lambert-Gócz concludes, “The great paradox of worthy complexity is that it reaches its apogee when the aromas comprising it have pulled together, e pluribus unum fashion.” The veneer of such a composition may appear simple. If there is an underlying complexity, it lies in the precarious balance necessary to render that veneer flawlessly, and the aesthetic vision to make it beautiful. If you are merely counting the multiplicity of nuances, imbalances can be drowned out by the cacophony. If instead you are striving for one sustained note of unadulterated purity and exquisite beauty, it is essential to have the courage to silence the cacophony, even if the result is, for better or worse, beyond description.
For me, you've first got to have purity and precision before complexity becomes a factor in any positive way, perhaps in any way at all as I'm not really sure that you can have complexity without a certain degree of precision and purity. And there are many, many wines that can't pass the P&P hurdle, even though they may be drinkable. And even once you get over the P&P hurdle, I may still value increased P&P more than increased complexity -- it all depends on the individual wine, I suppose.
Oh, and I forgot that freshness is another factor that you've got to have (fortunately, by self selection, I don't taste that many wines that lack freshness, but I know that there are many out there).
With few exceptions I rarely experience the "good" kinds of complexity with young wines. Its only with aged wines do I started seeing pleasing complexity.
For me, complexity is a distinct positive. A complex wine is one that has multiple and evolving tastes and smells that play well together and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The gustatory equivalent of listening to a great symphony orchestra. A wine that surprises and challenges the senses with unexpected yet pleasurable and harmonious sensations on the nose and palate. In my experience, the best examples have almost always been with older wines. If the wine is also beautifully balanced, the combination can elevate the entire experience to something really special. It doesn't happen often, but it's one of the reasons I cellar wine.
I understand the concept of clashing or dissonant complexities, but I just haven't thought of it that way. I guess my use of the term lacks, umm, complexity?
I can only give an analogy.
It is like standing on the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii at night. Looking up. You see EVERYTHING in the sky clearly. Even the satellites orbiting are in full view. The whole of the picture that you take in with your eyes dazzles you with almost infinite possibilities. Everything is clear and focused on your retina. That is complexity. You just have to change the sense from sight to the very complicated taste/aroma sensation.
BTW, if you haven't done a summit trip on Mauna Kea, you are missing a bucket list item.
Act without artifice, work without servility, savor the unflavored.
Make the small great, make much of little.
Respond to hatred with grace.
Lao Tzu "Tao Te Ching"
To me it's a lot of good stuff happening and the order to which it happens., resulting in a 'wow'.
Maybe it can't be easily quantified, only experienced.
2011 Rivers-Marie Cabernet Panek Vineyard
2011 Quivet Cellars Syrah Hulda Block Las Madres Vineyard
2005 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Majories Vineyard Premiere Napa Valley Auction
Thanks for all the interesting thoughts.
I thought at first maybe you had nailed something important here, but then I read Claude's comment, and Keith's quote from the chef who removes ingredients, and it made me think that, for me, complexity isn't an end in itself and that other qualities are actually more necessary before I consider a wine great.
The funny thing is, I think a lot of Cotes du Rhones and Rieslings have a lot of complexity. If they're not great, it must be for some other reason -- lack of depth, focus, structure, or whatever.
I think I'm with you. Now all we have to do is define purity and precision. :)
"We've all heard that a mil
Keith - that's a great article.
It is also, BTW, a great comment on tasting notes and why I think it's somewhat odd that people scramble to write them so often. Picking out flavor components shouldn't really be the point of enjoying wine, coffee, tea or soup.
I don't think complexity has much to do with the age of a wine either - often as not that's just personal preference. Older wines do change of course, but young wines can be wonderfully complex too.
G . T a t a r
Keith -- A fascinating discourse, which I'm still digesting [sic].
The observation about tasting notes (and who is responsible for writing with all those adjectives?) is very astute. When the British writers dominated wine criticism we didn't get those kinds of descriptors.
"We've all heard that a mil
When I think of complexity I think of variety - we have all had the expereince when a wine seems to flash different aspects or nuances of aroma/flavor over time in the glass, yet still retains the ability to knit all those disparate components into one harmonious whole. That kind of expereince seems to happen most often with wines that have sufficent age on them and for me are the times when both the intellectual and physical pleasure of drinking wine combine to hit a peak.
I look for complexity, but I think I should be thinking of it more in terms of profundity or uniqueness. This is my fifth year of being truly appreaciative of wine and I feel like I'm finally able, paraphrasing Terry Thiese here "hear what the wines are telling me". Complexity seems to be a big part of that. I write too many notes, it is part of the journey for me. I notice that I fall into the trap of writing things which are generally not useful. As Keith points out, "complexity" as a general term can mean little or be wrapped in ambiguity. I also agree with Rick that while it isn't the only thing, it is an important thing.
Does anyone remember that reference in an earlier thread to the human capacity to identify only a couple of flavors/smells at once?
"We've all heard that a mil
So, which of these two paintings is more "complex"? And which is the greater work of art?
I will disagree with your premise on one count- the Sierra Crap-che was not at all complex.
Keith - great example, but while the absurdity of the latter makes your point about complexity, the greatness of the former I'm sure could be subject to considerable debate.
I liked your article, especially in the way it speaks to the "grocery list" style tasting note, which has really been taken to absurd levels by some professionals (and imitated by amateurs). I think to call a wine great, its flavors must be balanced and integrated in such a way that make it difficult or impossible to break into constituent parts, and as your article points out in a great analogy to cola, without some obvious strong flavor sticking out somewhere. I have no problem calling this "complexity" and saying it's a requirement for a fine wine. Of course it's not the only requirement; as Rick says, necessary but not sufficient.
P ! g g ! n s
"You keep me searching for a heart of gold" - Neil Young
"Metal heart, you're not worth a thing" - Cat Power
Having sampled four bottles at one sitting at Dan Posner's great taste-off, I beg to differ. In varying quantities depending on the bottle, it was a rich blend of port, prunes, raisins, VA, oxidation and alcohol with other flavor elements I don't now recall. It was anything but monolithic! On a par with the aromatic mix of the NYC subway in August.
"We've all heard that a mil
Are we talking about complexity or spoofilation? The first piece, fwiw, is not to my personal taste, but I can appreciate that it is a fine representative of its varietal. 86 points.
If that's what people mean by "complexity" I'm fine with it, but I don't think that's what most people mean and I think there are better words to describe that sensation - "harmonious," "integrated," and "amalgamated" all do the job nicely.
I prefer flavor descriptions that are more generalized, i.e. red fruit vs. Oregon Bing Cherry, mostly because I think bulls*#@ when I see notes chalked full of really specific descriptions. The exception is when someone hits one specific flavor amongst an otherwise non-bloated note, especially if its unexpected. Otherwise tasting notes become a contest of who can find more flavors and dream up more adjectives.
I think complexity is key to a great wine. I also think its different in a younger wine than an old wine, and which is better is a matter of preference, availability notwithstanding. However, I think that some big wines that are meant to be drank and enjoyed young can shoot them selves in the foot seeking to be overly complex. There's a line between complex and a jumbled mess, and it's not always that fine.
Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities. - 1 Timothy 5:23
Personal WOTYs 2013:
Red: 2008 Rhys Syrah Horseshoe Vineyard; 1996 Turley Petite Syrah Aida Vineyard
White: 2007 E. Guigal Hermitage Ex Voto
Sticky: 1997 Croft Vintage Porto; 2005 Kracher No. 7
I really like the notion in Keith's post about that magical synergy, or as they put it, amplitude, of the various constituents. That is a kind of holy grail for flavor composition.
When I think of complexity it doesn't necessarily mean several different flavors at various times, to me it usually means what I perceive to be called "layered". Tones that are simultaneous but move in a wave-like fashion, with waxing and waning of various components. At first brush they seem to be together and it takes a while to peel them apart and figure it out. Seems to parallel the "amplitude" idea.
Yup. The key point here is that complexity is actually not a very difficult trait to manufacture. Start out with the grapes for your basic fruit flavors, maybe even blend a few if you want both red currants and blackberries!, use some designer yeasts to bring out some bacon or juniper-berry flavors or whatever else is promised, then put it in a nicely toasted oak barrel to add the "pain grille," vanilla, cedar, cinnamon, and other spices. Voila, you've now taken the leap from one flavor to nine or ten, just look at all that complexity!
Keith, interesting points. First, I really like the point about coca-cola. The sum of all parts are perfectly balanced (as far as cola goes), resulting in a clearly complex beverage loaded with flavors. You can't really pick out any one thing that dominates a coke (other than sugar). I think a truly complex wine falls into a similar parameter: When utterly complex, no one flavor or aroma dominates the wine. The flavors all work in unison to create a sum that is incredible. That is why over-oaked chardonnay isn't necessarily "complex" to me, even if it has many underlying aromas or flavors. The oak dominates, and therefore minimizes, the rest of the notes. I think the key to true complexity is even expression of countless notes that work together to create a sum-of-all-parts that creates an incredible tasting experience. Sierra Carche wines may have a lot going on, but if the parts don't work together, it doesn't meet my definition of complex. Perhaps I should write "appears complex" instead of just complex.
I think the tasting note criticism goes a little too far though. When a wine that meets my definition of complexity truly shines, no one note dominates. A tasting note like, "Oak, black fruit, tannins, good" would not do any justice to the wine, nor would it delineate between wine A and wine B. As you have surely experienced, some wines just pour off layer after layer of notes in which you can identify various fruit notes, earth notes, wood notes, and smells that remind you of x or y. With a truly complex wine I don't think you get an appearance of simplicity. You get an extended flash-mob of notes pouring out of the glass. Each note is different, but they all work together to create something truly interesting. I appreciate an effort to put that experience to paper. Not every wine has 10 different notes, but some sure as hell do. Just calling a wine amalgamated doesn't specify anything particular about the experience. Attempting to identify the components of the amalgamated wine help to delineate styles, flavor profiles, etc. which can be helpful when buying wine. Someone might like to know the it is a bunch of berries and baking spices that make up the "integrated" wine, as opposed to iron, rust, green olive, pepper, and bacon. As I have said before, tasting notes really only have three purposes: (1) consumer aid; (2) sharing experience with others; (3) catalog personal tasting experience for future reference. Detail can be very helpful in all of those contexts.
For precision, I think of the great food that the chef Frédy Girardet produced. You can call it clarity, too. The flavors were all there, but each stood out and didn't get in the way of the others and as a result were intensified in a harmonious and integrated fashion. As a result, he was able to take traditional and not especially complicated or original dishes and bring them to a new and previously unimagined level.
For purity, I would say that there is nothing negative that gets in the way, there is a pristine quality to what is in the wine.
Right, but here's my point about tasting notes. Sure, sometimes a wine might have a number of distinct flavors that you can pick out and isolate, but just because they are identifiable doesn't mean that they have anything to do with what makes the wine compelling. More often, it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the individual flavors; perhaps if you really put your mind to it some decriptions would come to mind, but in my experience those descriptions tend to be highly inaccurate. For example, how often has this happened to you: you're tasting a wine and all you're really thinking is, "Hm, nice pinot," when some guy across the table exclaims something like, "I'm getting raspberries!" All of a sudden, you taste the wine and you think raspberries. Is it really in the wine or is it just the power of suggestion? Sometimes the former, sometimes the latter, but my key point is that it doesn't make a difference, because whether it tastes like raspberries or cherries or a hypothetical blend of raspberries and cherries was pretty much irrelevant to what you found compelling about the wine in the first place.
If you're saying Coca-Cola and Sierra Cache are complex, then you've never had a really great old Madeira or Burgundy. Complexity is like that definition of pornography; I can't really describe it, but I know it when I see it.
To me 'more necessary' doesn't make sense. Things are necessary or not and I'm not really into stack ranking them. I agree with Claude about purity and precision, but a wine with those characteristics but that's simple and straightforward isn't great to me - again 'necessary, not sufficient.' Likewise, if Keith is arguing that complexity = a laundry list of flavors poorly integrated it doesn't strike me as profound, but a polemical strawman. His article seems more an argument against a particular style of TNs.
Thats the risk of general examples.. I've had complex versions of those too. But my go to example, a $10 Cline Syrah, is so specific people aren't likely to have had it. In most years it has nice, cool climate, pure fruit. But that's it.
Again, I don't see it as a ranked list. There are certain characteristics a wine needs to be great. It needs ALL of them and to rank order each doesn't mean much. One can talk about where a wine falls if one is missing and it might be that a wine falls farther in Claude's estimation if it's missing purity and precision than if it's missing complexity... but even that seems dicey to me since none of these characteristics are binary.
Dang Rick, I think that's right
No, that's not what we're saying at all - Coke is a great recipe precisely because it doesn't have the attributes that pass for complexity in winespeak. As for old Madeiras and Burgundies, some are complex, some aren't, and the greats can be in either camp. For example, La Tache is a fundamentally complex terroir - there is always a multiplicity of stuff in it. Romanee-St.-Vivant I think is not at all complex in that sense; you can sum up the essential features in just a few words (fruit, five-spice, and satin - there, done) - but it is still a profound wine because its form is beautiful even though it's not complicated.
Complexity is like pornography. I can't define it but I know it when I smell it.
IMO, this is Tony Bennett at his
You're conflating complex with complicated.
Dang Rick, I think that's right
To me 'more necessary' doesn't make sense. Things are necessary or not and I'm not really into stack ranking them. I agree with Claude about purity and precision, but a wine with those characteristics but that's simple and straightforward isn't great to me - again 'necessary, not sufficient.' Likewise, if Keith is arguing that complexity = a laundry list of flavors poorly integrated it doesn't strike me as profound, but a polemical strawman. His article seems more an argument against a particular style of TNs. [/quote]
My logic professor rolls over in his grave at the thought of "more necessary." How about "more essential"?
"We've all heard that a mil
I think we have a fundamental disagreement here. If I am looking to buy a pinot noir of a certain style, I want to know if it is more raspberry and floral or cherry and cola. Both flavor profiles might be compelling, sure. But it absolutely matters which I am getting if I have a preference for one style over the other. And, as I said before, information is what tasting notes are about because they are really only used for the three reasons I stated above. There is no point in writing a tasting note that isn't informative. Something that says "great structure, power, and finesse. Integrated and compelling," doesn't inform anyone about what the wine is [i]actually like[i]. Those notes are like saying "nice house." Is it Victorian? Is it Tuscan? Does it have a pool? Hardwood and granite? Descriptive terms like cherries, raspberries, etc. help give a better idea of the sensory perceptions experienced when tasting a wine. I won't get into the power of suggestion issue, other than to say that some things are phenols, which are more than a power of suggestion, and others are impressions, which lead to power of suggestion issues.
What does pornography smell like?
No, I'm not "conflating" anything. But I suppose I would take the view that nothing can be complex unless it's also complicated, and that there is also virtue to be found in being simple and uncomplicated (and thus not complex). If you want to call that "conflating," go ahead...
FWIW, American Heritage Dictionary definition of "complicated": "Complex, intricate, and involved."