WAC 2014 Recap Series : The complexity of complexity

Complexity. Such power wrapped up in a single word. Describing a wine as complex effectively puts a big red flag on a wine review, signaling to readers a level of quality and sophistication that cannot be indicated by any other single term.

To add a bit of philosophy to the WAC 2014 mix, Professor Barry C. Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses (CenSes) at the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy, and author of Questions of Taste, presented his ideas on this often-elusive concept.

Smith asks what, exactly, we refer to when we speak of complexity. He breaks it down into two components : perceptual complexity and hedonic complexity.

Perceptual complexity is multifaceted in itself.  What sensory phenomena are we coding for when we use the word complex?  How is complexity manifested from a sensorial perspective?  First, complexity could be a result of a multisensory experience – an engagement of multiple senses simultaneously.  This, however, seems only somewhat relevant in a wine, as all wines are going to stimulate the same senses (though the setting in which a wine is tasted could certainly play a role here, as discussed in another post in this series). It turns out that the perception of complexity is not correlated with the number of components, but it is rather a sense of harmony and balance that counts.  This is not surprising – anyone who has tasted a wine where the oak is poorly integrated can attest to this.   It is not simply the sum of a multitude of component flavors that will render a wine memorable.  No, wine-derived pleasure lies is the integration of these components – the “greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts” phenomenon. Part of the “magic formula” of wine complexity could be related to the dynamic quality of the sensory experience. The order in which a series of components are perceived has an influence on our impression of complexity, so it is possible that the nature of the components in creating a sense of balance is less important than the order these components are presented in.

This idea of balance brings to mind a concept that I recently learned about in reading an old NYTimes Mag piece about junk food.  “Sensory-specific satiety.”  This is the basis for the recipes in products such as Coca-cola and Doritos, that a balance of flavors causes us to want to eat more.  The phenomenon results from the fact that dominating flavors cause our brains send out signals of satiety, but a delicate balance where no individual flavor stands out is able to fly below our brains’ radar, allowing us to continue eating ad infinitum. It seems logical that the same concept would apply to wines, and that a proper balance where no aroma or flavor monopolizes the mix keeps our interest piqued, positively influencing our perception of quality.

The second aspect of complexity, according to Smith, is hedonic complexity.  A non-complex wine might be likable, but only a complex wine is capable of arousing our emotions. The enhanced pleasure of this experience may be linked to the presence, in small doses, of what is otherwise a highly unpleasant aroma. We don’t yet know how much of this is simply a matter of certain compounds that are perceived differently at different concentrations (take the compound sotolon as an example – in low concentrations it smells of caramel or maple syrup, but at higher doses it gives you the impression that someone sprinkled curry powder directly in your glass) and how much is due to the power of contrast.  But in any case, the power of small doses of certain aromas and flavors to change the entire profile of a wine is a hugely important consideration in blending.  This is why many wines contain miniscule percentages of different varieties.  It may seem like 3% of Cabernet Franc would have no impact in that Bordeaux you’re drinking, but it’s a bit like adding a pinch of salt – a little bit of certain flavors helps to bring out and enhance others in a way not yet entirely explainable by either wine chemists or sensory scientists.

Who knew that complexity was so…well… complex ?  It takes the mind of a philosopher to wrap your head around it.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s