Since Matt Kramer wrote his excellent (and extremely popular column) on "How to Taste Wine" this past December, I've been giving some thought to the term "complexity," which he considers to be one of the six most important words in wine tasting.
True complexity in a wine, he wrote, is the ability to return to the glass and find something different in it each time, and further, a sense of uncertainty or surprise about what you find. It's a neat idea and one that really resonated with me, especially about the element of surprise.
This may sound a little silly, but for me, good wine evokes a sense of motion and movement. When I taste a really good wine (or hear good music or view good art), I feel—just for half a breath—like I'm driving fast in a car or being pulled up into the sky by a rope. It's a visceral reaction that I think correlates somehow to that idea of uncertainty, something that makes you pause and jolts you out of time and place.
The trouble, however, with the term "complexity" is that in my experience, people don't seem to share the same definition. When I was on a wine-tasting trip last year with friends who are not in the wine industry, complexity to them meant "more"—more flavor, more texture, more aromas. The word seemed to function as a marker of the volume of things to taste, meaning a longer list of descriptors, rather than of surprise or uncertainty.
I don't think that is the way Mr. Kramer intended the word to be used, as he wrote complexity means more than multiplicity. But the dictionary definition of the word is "composed of many intricate parts" or "characterized by a complicated or involved arrangement of parts," so I'm not sure that my friends were using the word incorrectly.
An additional part of the problem stems from the either-or introduced between simple and complex when we say that we are looking for complexity. Simple doesn't necessarily have to be pejorative, right? There can be intensity and surprise in simplicity (see: Mark Rothko's Color Field paintings, George Harrison's guitar solos). Perhaps "complex" isn't the best metric for all wines. I'd like to believe that great wines can be recognized by purity or subtlety as well.
What do you think? Is this giving too much thought to semantics? Do you prefer other words over "complexity"? Why not say "surprising" or "intricate"? Is "complexity" destined to be one of those terms that means something different in the real world than it does in the wine world?
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco — February 19, 2013 4:31pm ET
William Smith — St. Helena — February 20, 2013 5:01pm ET
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