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The Trouble with "Complexity" in Wine

We keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what you think it means

Posted: Feb 19, 2013 12:30pm ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

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
I learned about complexity reading Maynard Amerine. In his classic book Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation, he writes about complexity: "A great wine should have so many facets of quality that we are continually finding new ones." To summarize the term, he adds, "Fine wines have a complexity of sensory qualities that defy simple analysis. When pleasure and complexity combine to create a memorable experience we have a great wine."

Note that he's talking about more than just aromas or flavors, but includes appearance, color and texture (not to mention length and harmony).

The glossary adds, with some prescience, "Only those with some experience in the sensory evaluation of wines should use the word."

What you (and Matt) are talking about are the effects of complexity. And I agree. How we respond to a wine is as important as is analyzing its component parts.
William Smith
St. Helena —  February 20, 2013 5:01pm ET
Hugh Johnson, said it well I think, "Good wine makes a statement, great wine leaves us with a question"
Craig Peer
Cameron Park, CA  —  July 25, 2013 3:47pm ET
Complexity doesn't mean " more ". I suppose the opposite of a complex wine would be a " monotone " wine - not very interesting.

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