Explaining Complexity in Wine

Complexity is a word that often comes up when describing a quality wine.  However, it can be difficult to pinpoint what it actually means and why it matters.  The temptation is to place it in the “know it when you see it” category, or simply say that it becomes apparent after tasting a lot of different wines.  But while complexity can be vague in the context of wine, it is intuitively understood in music.  So, let’s look at it through that lens.

An orchestra is an collection of instruments where each musician takes on one small part of the whole.  An orchestra’s relationship to the music is symbiotic -- much like that of a winemaker to grapes.  While a great musician can inject life into a mediocre piece of music and a middling musician can impress with a superior composition, it is when the skilled musician and great music meet that true art is created.

For the audience, the overall sensation is to be awash, overtaken by music.  Mind and emotions reel from the sheer density of sound.  Only with concentration is it be possible to tease out the individual threads; the trill of the flute, the swell of the timpani, the soaring of the violins.  Each of those threads have their own narrative that can meander and flow, but the mind gets lost and suddenly surfaces to again reflect on the enormity and beauty of the entirety of the music.

The same kind of complexity makes for great wine.  To smell and note the presence of “cherry, coffee, leather, and hay” is all well and good, but this is like listing the type or instruments played or the number of G chords in a song.  Much like the symphony, a great wine is both immersive and indescribable.  Each time you sniff, you may smell something different, but it leads back to an appreciation of the whole.  Like music, the wine will play with emotions, changing depending on your mood, but also altering it slightly.  Finally, great wine will have a flow to every sip -- a beginning, middle and end -- that leaves the impression of balance.

Complexity says nothing about style.  It is tempting to think that delicate wines cannot hope to achieve the full experience of a bold wine.  On the other hand, it may seem that a wine’s very powerful elements could mask its beauty.  However, masterpieces, vinous or symphonic, defy these stereotypes.  Instead, they express something true.  And truth is rarely simple.