It's Harvest time in the Valley.

It's Harvest time in the Valley.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Finding Complexity In Wine

Wine is produced in various levels of quality, from simple, one-dimensional quaffs to world-class collectibles. Wines of very good to excellent quality typically distinguish themselves—whether they are red or white, dessert or bubbly—by a unique characteristic that wine enthusiasts know as complexity.

Any item which is complex in nature, whether it be Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Monet’s Femmes au Jardin or an aged Grand Cru Red Bordeaux, has central to its nature a variety of unique and interacting attributes. These synergistic components provide the potential for greater enjoyment, assuming one is versed in the principles of music, art or wine appreciation and are open to pursuing the increased possibilities.

I particularly enjoy Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, but I would likely appreciate it more if I understood    “. . . its daunting technical difficulties, including the bruising first-movement cadenza, which demands treacherous skips.” Likewise, if I studied painting as my wife has, I might be more taken with Monet’s Femmes au Jardin, like the enthusiastic critic who exclaims, “Can there ever have been a painting in which such an array of blobs, dots, stripes, beads, buttons, petals and leaves play together with such an effect?”

However, I know just enough about wine to be dangerous, and when I read the following Decanter magazine review of the 2005 Pontet-Canet (Pauillac), it really got my juices flowing: “Extraordinary multi-dimensional nose, very deep and perfumed. Lovely fresh and juicy palate with sweet red and black fruits - very exotic fruit too - set off by ripe soft tannins. A totally new dimension, very balanced, enormous length, utterly delicious.” I purchased a few bottles “on futures” several years ago to celebrate our first grandchild's birth year, and I’m anxiously looking forward to uncorking one in the next year or two!

So, what are wine’s “interacting attributes?” Briefly, they include the fundamentals—aroma and flavor, acidity and tannin, body style, structure and balance, as well as grape variety and/or appellation—plus the various procedural options that winemakers have in their “tool boxes.”

It’s important to note, however, that even without understanding or being able to evaluate those attributes, one can still appreciate and enjoy a wine. However, that person won’t be able to delve into the more—dare I say?—“intellectual” aspects of wine appreciation until he/she understands those particulars.

While I expect Bordeaux and other world-class wines to deliver complexity, I did not anticipate encountering it from a rather unexpected source: an inexpensive (under $20) California Sauvignon Blanc (SB). What was “going on” here, I wondered? Well, what “went on” (it took a few nagging emails), was the winemaker reached deep into his/her “tool box,” and pulled out several interesting options.

First, a “fair amount” of the highly aromatic Musqué Clone was added to the regular Sauvignon Blanc Clone 1—then both were fermented in stainless steel. Second, a small percentage of (new French oak), barrel fermented Viognier (tropical aspects) was added to SB blend. Third, the entire cuvee was aged for three months “on the lees” with periodic stirrings for added complexity (body and richness). Lastly, everything was clean-racked to new stainless steel to age and meld for several more months prior to bottling.

As you likely know, Sauvignon Blanc is identified by its pungent, grapefruit-like, herbal aromatics and its high-toned, palate-whacking acidity. I have friends who hate the stuff and have others who salivate over it. However, this wine displayed those same aspects but in a more toned-down and redefined way—the typical SB aromatics were enhanced and enriched as was the mouthfeel. It was fuller bodied than usual, and there was broad, atypical textural expression. Stylistically, this was not your average SB, and it seemed more quality driven than its price. In a nutshell, it was decidedly different, but pleasantly complex.

However, as in all topics vinous, complexity is in the eyes (or palate) of the beholder—my wife was underwhelmed by it. Moreover, I can see that many SB fans—particularly those who prefer the New Zealand style—would find this wine rather boring and not the least bit complex. On the other hand, I can see where Chardonnay drinkers might find it interesting, because of its Chardonnay-like vinification.

And lastly, my purpose in detailing the above was not to pique your interest about that specific wine, but, rather, to arouse your curiosity as well as your palate about future wines that you’ll be swirling and sniffing.


  1. TB,

    Another well written interesting commentary; keep up the consistently good work.


  2. Thank you TCE! Appreciate the feedback!