Complexity and Finish: Hallmarks of Quality

In a prior article, we dealt with four fundamental attributes of wine: body, texture, depth and concentration of flavor, and balance. In this issue, we will consider two additional characteristics of wine, COMPLEXITY and FINISH, both of which are essential to excellent wine.

Outstanding wines are produced in the full panoply of body and texture styles. I recently had the pleasure of drinking three great wines (’01 Donhoff Niederhauser Hermanshole Spatlese Riesling, ’89 J.L. Chave Hermitage Rouge, and ’97 Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon), which ranged from light- to full-bodied. Likewise, they varied in texture from crisp and minerally, to silky smooth, to dense and chewy. However, there were also qualities common to all three wines: (1) exquisite balance; (2) depth of flavor; (3) compelling COMPLEXITY; and (4) a long, delightful FINISH. All great wines possess these four qualities at a rarefied level, but they also are pertinent to the evaluation of all wines.

Having discussed balance and depth of flavor previously, let’s turn our attention to COMPLEXITY. With wine, it is perhaps best to think of COMPLEXITY as an effect instead of a physical attribute. It is not simply a tangible aspect of the wine, but rather an elusive quality that captivates one’s attention. While the source of COMPLEXITY is in the physical composition and elements of the wine, it is not the mere presence of these myriad aromas and textural aspects that define the level of COMPLEXITY, any more than the sheer number of colors and lines in a Jackson Pollack painting produce a complex art work. COMPLEXITY engages the mind; it grips your attention. It is the effect of how the various elements, harmoniously knit together, impart a sensation that is intriguing and provocative. It is the opposite of simple, straightforward and, ultimately, boring.

If we consider the term in the context of music, there exists a great number of simple, pleasant songs that complement, or serve as background for, our daily activities. On a more interesting level, Tina Turner’s singing provides a sensuous, upfront, invigorating and pleasing sensation that evokes an emotional response. At a higher level still, let’s consider fine chamber music. This is a subject of which I have scant formal knowledge. Nevertheless, I know that if I listen closely to Bach or Mozart, I will become intellectually engaged in the music. Within this harmonious blend of sounds, are layers of themes and nuance, power and finesse, inexplicably drawing from us emotional and cerebral responses that are, themselves, complex and difficult to define. An attentive taster experiences a similar effect from fine wine.

COMPLEXITY is found in many wine varietals. I suggest you try a range of pinot noirs at various price points and from different regions (Burgundy, Russian River, Oregon, Central Coast of California). Solicit help from a knowledgeable retailer in selecting the wines. Pour the wines an hour before tasting them, periodically swirling and sniffing the wine. Then, over a one– to two – hour session, taste the wines, going back and forth among them. Record your impressions at the beginning and throughout the tasting. Which wines continued to hold your interest? The simpler versions may taste delicious, providing flavors and aromas that you particularly like. But they tend to become tiresome and, in the context of a meal, usually receive only passive attention after the first few tastes. Conversely, a multi-dimensional wine, such as a Talley Rosemary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, will unfold with time in the glass, and lure you back to experience its evolving profile. It may have a brooding nature or a scintillating one, but a well–made, complex wine is almost always a delight. I have been fortunate to drink many excellent wines where I loved the last swallow above all the others and, invariably, they were wines of great COMPLEXITY.

The term FINISH refers to the taste of the wine that remains in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. It is the final impression, analogous to a dancer’s finishing gesture. If the dancer stops abruptly and leaves the stage, the quality of the performance is adversely affected. However, unlike the dancer’s finale, the quality of a wine’s FINISH is measured by its length in time, as well as its dimensions of taste and texture. A long FINISH, displaying multiple flavors and a satisfying mouth-feel, contributes significantly to a wine’s COMPLEXITY. With every wine you drink, devote some attention to the aftertaste. If there is little or no residual taste, the wine is deemed to be of relatively low quality. This is not to say that a delicious wine with a minimal FINISH is to be avoided. Rather, it should be viewed as an incomplete wine and of inferior quality, all other attributes being equal, to wines having a persistent FINISH.

If you will taste wines with a focus on all of these attributes (body, texture, depth and concentration of flavor, balance, complexity, and finish), you will develop an easy discipline for doing so whenever you drink wine. As your experience increases, so will your facility for gaining an accurate impression of the wine in all its facets. And, as with most of life’s greatest pleasures, this depth of understanding will enhance the joy of drinking wine immeasurably.