Lateral and Vertical Complexity

My online enology class includes a mandatory “group discussion” board where participants can post questions and ideas pertaining to the reading assignments or just about winemaking in general.  To date, no thread has incited more traffic than a post about lateral and vertical complexity in wines and that complexity as a measure of quality.  Of course, we all differ in our opinions of what constitutes a quality wine, which encompasses everything from cost to availability, varietal and style, ageability, trade ratings, and most fundamentally whether you like what you smell and taste.  But more importantly, I think the concepts of lateral and vertical complexity provide a useful framework for examining what’s in your glass the next time you slowly savor a glass of your favorite juice. Lateral complexity refers to the “forward” characteristics that we first encounter in smelling and tasting a wine.  This is the initial chemical composition, and it may include many different sensations at once.  First you might smell banana and then flowers.  If you pause to chat and then swirl again, your next sniff might yield tropical fruit and perhaps more banana.  In this case, your nose identifies the most obvious scents that are present in the greatest concentrations first.  After your “nose cells” (for lack of a simpler term) are full of one smell, they become desensitized, and we’re then able to eek out additional, less obvious scents.  It’s not that we’re better smellers now.  Instead you’ve cleared your smelling cells so you can detect other stuff.  But if you wait and try again, clean out those sniffer cells and have another go, you’ll still smell the same original set of characteristics: banana, flowers, and tropical fruit.  So at your next cocktail party if the guy in the velvet dinner jacket waxes poetic about the “fruit forward” pinot, he means that it has the obvious, intense, and immediate aroma of cherry and cranberry right up front.

This is quite different from the more delayed, layered complexity that is termed “vertical complexity.”  As your wine sits in the glass, exposed to ambient oxygen, its chemical composition changes dramatically.  That banana smell is a volatile compound, so it evaporates into the air and floats away into the ether.  This “unmasks” different, new hidden flavors that were unappreciated just an hour ago.  And of course, what I smell may be different from what you identify with your personal nose cells.  To make matters worse, sometimes weird and funky smells must be tolerated up front in order to sniff the good stuff after the wine “breathes” (i.e. sits in your glass exposed to oxygen).  I vividly recall opening a lauded bottle of Condrieu at a fancy San Diego institution only to suffer an olfactory sucker punch from the immediate and overpowering scent of stinky cheese.  We were dining with another couple, and the other wife concurred; it smelled like runny, wet aged blue cheese.  Now I happen to love stinky cheese, but this took me quite by surprise.  By the books, these wines are all apricot, pear, almonds and violets.  And sure enough, after a good 10 or 15 minutes, the wine smelled like ripe fruit and the cheesy overtones had abated completely.

I am not advocating drinking your juice with your pinky in the air and using a fake British accent to classify the aromas in your glass.  But the concepts of lateral and vertical complexity provide a great paradigm for thinking about the wonderful richness of wine and how it changes over time.

For those interested, Ann Noble of UC Davis has created a wine aroma wheel which helps categorize smells from broad subtypes like “fruity” or “woody” into specific subgroups like “tropical fruit” and “cut green grass.”  She also has tips for creating aroma standards at home that you can use to train your nose.  It’s a steal at $6 a pop.