Complexity is a good thing in a wine, right? It’s a descriptive term that is almost always used approvingly. You would not disparage a wine by calling it complex.
Yet at times, complexity might be wasted on its audience. Whether because of fatigue, distraction or life getting on your last nerve, a complex wine may not always fit the moment.
This, in a nutshell, captures the paradox of wine evaluation. Without context, bottles are rated on a universal scale of what makes a wine good, which is weighted toward the ability to age and evolve, to express complex aromas and flavors, to convey the character of the place in which the grapes were grown and the culture of the people who made the wine, to evoke contemplation.
These are all wonderful characteristics in a wine, and difficult to achieve. A wine that could do all of these things would be considered great, and few would argue.
Sometimes, though, the occasion calls for a different kind of great. Instead, what’s wanted is a bottle that refreshes, relaxes and perhaps spurs conversation and intimacy. In a situation like this, the best bottle may not be the one conventionally lauded. How do wine ratings and evaluation square with the question of context?
We ask these sorts of questions frequently at Wine School, even if we are not always able to answer them. The answers, after all, are not necessarily as important as the questions.
I’m not referring to the simple sort of queries that are easily resolved with a swipes of the smartphone: What are the soils and bedrock in the vineyard? Was the wine aged in oak barrels? Let those cramming for the wine exam recite such litanies of facts.
Siri can’t tell you what greatness in wine means, for instance. This is the sort of question we all have to consider for ourselves. Such a question may better be left unresolved, maybe for a long time. Let it reside in the mind to be pondered with many sorts of wines on all types of occasions, in many differing moods.
Only through such consideration can each of us arrive at deciding for ourselves what might be the best wine for the moment, regardless of what the books, the apps or your know-it-all friends say.
It’s all a matter of developing ease and confidence in one’s taste, maybe not of knowing the answers but of knowing which questions to ask. Here at Wine School, we don’t pretend to be gurus, rabbis or life coaches, to use a currently popular term. But we do think our method of trying many different wines with open minds in relaxed situations is as foolproof as it is simple in achieving comfort with wine.
I started thinking about standards of greatness because of something one reader, Peter of Philadelphia, said about a bottle of Verdicchio di Matelica, our subject over the last month. He consumed a bottle with a pesto dish, made with basil from his own garden.
“It was what I think of as a typical Italian white wine,” he wrote, describing it as “not particularly complicated, but who needs complicated on a hot summer evening?”
I might take issue with the first part of what he said — Verdicchio di Matelica seems similar to other Italian whites we’ve tried, like Etna Bianco, Soave Classico and Fiano di Avellino, but it is also very different. They are all dry, aromatic, not overly oaked and have great acidity. But you could say this about white wines from a lot of countries. And I do find these wines quite distinct from one another.
I might even take issue with the second part, although I agree with the sentiment. Who needs complicated on a hot summer evening?
But that led me to wonder about whether these verdicchios could properly be described as uncomplicated. Could they actually be simple and complex at the same time?
Verdicchio di Matelica is the lesser known of two major verdicchio appellations in the Marche region, on the Adriatic coast of Italy inland from the city of Ancona. The other, bigger and better known, is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.
Verdicchio di Matelica is farther from the coast and generally at a higher elevation, in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. The wines are often thought to be a bit weightier than those from Castelli di Jesi, with more acidity and minerality, but not as light and floral.
The Belisario Salse, the least expensive at $15, was a striking wine, incisive and lean, with laserlike acidity. It smelled like seashells and crushed rocks, with a little almond flavoring thrown in. I wouldn’t want this as an aperitif, standing around at a gallery opening. Its raging acidity demands food. I was craving clams on the half shell.
The Bisci, likewise, had that seashell minerality, but it was richer, rounder and more herbal than the Salse. It was more forgiving and flexible, and didn’t require food in the same way. This you could happily enjoy at a party.
The ColleStefano, I thought, was the most complete wine of the three, though I don’t mean to suggest that either of the others were lacking. Citrus, herbs, almonds, seashells and stones, along with the richer roundness of the Bisci, made for the most satisfying combination, for me at least.
I thought back to Peter’s point that these wines were uncomplicated. Maybe now they were, but they seemed to have the elements of complexity if they were given time to evolve. These all were young wines, and they were entry-level bottles, as well. But I couldn’t help feeling that over time, the acidity in each would become more sedate, and the other elements would become more expressive.
Some readers, in fact, drank older bottles. “What a wine!” said Reynolds of Manhattan after drinking a 2010 Bisci Senex Riserva, made from Bisci’s oldest vines and aged for four years in concrete tanks. “I could see this improving for another decade.”
That bottle sounds as if it’s on its way to greatness, if it hasn’t already arrived. Dan Barron of Manhattan drank a 2013 Bisci, which he said became more complex as it warmed up.
Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York tried a 2019 Bisci, and found plenty to intrigue her in this very young wine. She said it begged for serious food, suggesting coniglio in porchetta, rabbit prepared in the style of porchetta.
What is it about these wines? How can they can offer uncomplicated refreshment, as Peter perceived, yet express more complex aromas and flavors, too?
Perhaps their prices, just $15 to $18, liberate us to experience them as we wish? If a $100 chardonnay came off as delicious and uncomplicated, I imagine anybody would be tremendously disappointed. These, on the other hand, are great values, capable of a range of pleasures. Dare we call them great wines?
Ferguson in Princeton appreciated the texture and liveliness of the wine. “It will leave you with enough energy to still do the dishes perhaps with another half glass poised next to the sink,” she said of the ColleStefano.
Drinking the Salse gave Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., insight into a historic legend. “Before the dinner I was wondering why Alaric the Visigoth had 40 donkeys loaded up with barrels of verdicchio,” he said. “Now I know: They needed refreshment before they sacked Rome.”
In the end, I have to conclude that these are great wines. They each did their jobs extraordinarily well, fulfilling the imperative of refreshment, offering energy and intriguing texture as well as a bit of complexity if you chose to look for it.
It’s not so much the conventional definition. It’s more a question of fulfilling expectations. We often preach about choosing the right wine for the occasion. For those expecting a simple white wine, these offer those uncomplicated pleasures. For those wanting more, these wines come with extras. That they are superb values can’t be discounted.
But you don’t have to answer the question of whether they are great or of what constitutes greatness. Just keep the questions in mind.