Great wines have dominant flavor and aroma notes that have clarity and focus and exhibit harmony in that they have a sense of cohesion, with each element working together in an overall pattern. But these dominant aromas stand out against a background of hints and nuances, aromas that can be only dimly perceived yet give the wine a sense of depth. Such wines are described as complex because they seem to have many dimensions that persist as a penumbra around the central aromas as our attention shifts back and forth from foreground to background. This is why tasting notes often contain a seemingly endless list of aroma descriptors which can baffle less practiced tasters. The aromas can be so faint they are open to multiple interpretations and are susceptible to perceptual threshold variations among tasters. Yet, even when they cannot be clearly discerned and identified, they contribute to the depth and richness of the wine, functioning much as a mirepoix does in a sauce. The carrots, celery and onion cannot be picked out as distinct flavor notes yet they add richness to the sauce.
These background aromas often develop a character that is in tension with the foreground aromas. Especially as wines age, the dominant fruit, floral and herbal scents are surrounded by aromas that remind us of gravel, tar, barnyard, cat pee, petroleum, musk, sweaty saddle, smoke, gunflint, and bacon fat, not to mention the less prized aromas such as band aid, nail polish remover, and rotten egg. These are not pretty and introduce elements in the wine that are disruptive, deviant, in themselves often ugly.
If we think of wine as exhibiting flavor themes, these deviant aromas are clearly in tension with the dominant fruit and herbal themes. A pretty peach-and-apple-inflected Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region that begins to develop diesel fuel aromas in the bottle is acquiring tension and conflict that adds to the impression of depth. When sufficiently reticent so they don’t overwhelm the dominant fruit aromas most professional wine tasters would argue that the wine exhibits harmony. But there is an important aesthetic difference between a harmony of similar qualities vs. a harmony achieved through balanced tension with qualities that are from a different flavor world.
Beauty is at its highest intensity when there is contrast between the components that make up the experience, when the background elements of an experience are brought into the foreground. For this purpose, contrast is vital.
As the early 20th Century American philosophy Alfred North Whitehead argued:
“Contrast elicits depth, and only shallow experience is possible when there is a lack of patterned contrast.” (Adventures in Ideas, 268)
I’m not sure “harmony” is the best way to describe wines that depend on contrast for their beauty. Great wines are so much more than harmonious.
For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily