by Margaret Rand

On Complexity

A wine, like a short story, should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Nobody would disagree with that. But how many do? How many start, toddle along for a bit and then finish, all without very much happening?

I’m not sure that a short story is the right comparison – even the shortest is too long for the compressed experience of a mouthful of wine. A poem, perhaps. Not the Inferno: too long. Not The Lady of Shallot: too – well, just too. John Donne? Depends on the wine. How about a Shakespeare sonnet? ‘Shall I compare thee to a Cabernet/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate’ – that sort of thing? It’s not a bad comparison: that perfectly contnrolled development, then the resolution in the last two lines. Wines should emerge on the palate; different notes should pop up, perhaps to be reabsorbed as others take over. What I’m talking about is complexity.

I have been to several tastings lately where highly accomplished winemakers have talked at some length about the complexity and fascination of their wines. And then, when I taste them, I wonder if we’re talking about the same wines. Even allowing for the demands of salesmanship, the gap between the talk and what’s happening in the glass is a bit much. One starts to fidget, talk to one’s neighbour, doodle on the tasting sheet. The wines, in all cases, have been perfectly all right, and sometimes even beautifully balanced and polished. But complex? No. Not remotely. They start, they go on for a bit, and they finish. They have nothing to say except Hello – even if their accent is perfect.

This is where I am really glad I am not a winemaker. How do you get complexity into a wine? The grower’s answer would be terroir: great terroir gives complexity. Which it does, once you’ve worked out how to turn its quirks to your advantage. Historically, if you had a wealthy, demanding, often urban market, then you had every inducement to plant better grapes and make the best wine you could. If you didn’t, then mere quantity and plenty of alcohol would do the job. If you look at tasting notes from the 19th century, they don’t mention complexity or anything like it. Perfume, the ability to age (and to survive shipping) and good flavours are the focus of comments in these years.

Was complexity assumed, in a good wine? Of course it was. It was just part of what made a wine good. But one of the results of today’s greater knowledge and technical excellence is the ability to make good, even technically very good wines that are not complex. The natural connection between the two has been broken, and so complexity becomes a quality to look for, rather than one to take for granted. Some of the wines I have tasted recently have been undeniably good: lovely texture, perfect poise. But, again, nothing much to say except Hello.

I don’t doubt that their terroir is every bit as good as their makers say it is. They show pictures, and maps, and demonstrate air flow and sunshine. The maps are terrific. It’s just that they don’t seem to add up to much in the glass.

But then along comes a tasting of Ridge Monte Bello, and of Roederer’s new batch of late-released vintages, and one is back in the world of the sonnet. Sparks fly, ideas are tossed around on the palate, things rhyme, there is wit, there are no missed beats. And it all feels effortless.

Shall I compare thee to a Cabernet?
Thou art more awkward and more contrary.
In youth you might have nothing much to say;
And adolescence hits thee sulkily.
Some years too hot the eye of heaven shines
Some vintages cut yields to half a ton;
Sometimes a violet with undergrowth entwines,
Sometimes the tannins fine and silky run;
But thy eternal palate shalt not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor could the dimmest tasting note e’er made
– the one that focuses on fruit, and toast –
Obscure the essence of complexity
That is thy life, and which gives life to thee.

One could think of the shape in the mouth as the shape of a poem – the way that Chardonnay, in a classic Champagne blend, kicks off, and then the Pinot comes in to deepen and prolong the curve of flavour, and then there’s that tiny twist of bitterness on the finish. Or the way that oak, used properly and invisibly, can carry flavour like a theme through to the end.

Do you need a blend of grapes for complexity? Pétrus and a few others would say no. Burgundians might also say no, but I remember Marcel Deiss firmly telling me some years ago that Pinot is not just one variety. And he’s right, of course. Pinot has more than 1,000 variants, and where one grape variety ends and another begins depends on ampelographers effectively drawing a line on a piece of paper, and saying that these mutations are still variety A, but that mutation makes it Variety B. A grape variety can be as much a flag of convenience as a botanically accurate identification. And so complexity slips in unnoticed.

Which is how it should be. Striving for complexity usually feels like trying too hard. Think of all those perfectly innocent white grapes, like Albariño or Furmint or Assyrtiko, which get the kitchen sink thrown at them in the name of complexity. Or some of those very expensive rosés, for that matter. They’re like the neighbour at dinner who insists on telling you how much money they have, or how terribly clever they are.

Champagne, in its wit and symmetry and ease, should be the perfect dinner companion. In its levity and seriousness, its precision and its expansiveness, it is like that most glorious of all art forms, the limerick.

There was a young man from Champagne
Who said, ‘It is not to my gain
To let wine writers taste
My rare wines; it’s a waste.
I swear I won’t ask them again.’

Not that that effort is worthy of Roederer 1995; not by a long way.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash