Last week’s column explored how a period of restraint from alcohol might, especially in the wake of Thanksgiving indulgence, recalibrate the palate and ignite a newfound appreciation for what wine can offer the attentive drinker. I wrote of care, clarity and simplicity.

I still hope you’ll consider the benefits of holding back, but today, following the wild swings of orientation my mind tends to follow – yours too? – I’m occupied by some wines with high alcohol, and simplicity has been replaced by complicatedness.

“Complicatedness” wasn’t a word until I just coined it, but “complexity” doesn’t convey my intention. Complexity describes intricate, interesting relationships among many parts held in delicate tension.

All great wines are complex, as they harmonize disparate flavors, textures and elements of the natural world. I often use “complexity” as a shorthand way to point to a wine’s whole-greater-than-sum-of-its-part-ness, its evasion of classification.

Complicated wines resist classification too, but they don’t arc toward harmony the way great, complex wines do. Complicated wines are more unsettled. They swim happily and skillfully in seas of multiplicity, juxtaposing components, but with little urgency to show how each component relates to the other. Not everything resolves; the mechanics are clunkier; Steve Jobs wouldn’t approve.

But I love wines like this. Even if I could afford to drink great wines all the time, I’d decline the opportunity, because I’d get bored. Harmony only dignifies us if we’ve struggled to find it. Complicated wines put the struggle on display. They provide the most accurate possible picture of the world’s twisted chaos.

You can’t walk into a wine shop and ask the clerk to point you to the complicated wines section, and it’s hard to come up with categories of region or grape that are a sure bet for complicatedness. Still, there’s a small handful of likely suspects, and as an introduction, here are a couple: White Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat.

I usually run from both of these types screaming, barely resisting the urge to tear out my eyeballs and tongue as if in some Greek tragedy. White Chateauneufs are usually overripe, obese monsters. They’re so compacted, so extravagantly rich, so bereft of acidity and heedless of the world around them that I hope protesters sets up tents in southern Rhone parks to protest the wines’ power-mad obliterating covetousness.

Priorats are usually so aggressively tannic and messy in their youth that to even enter the realm of the approachable, they need 15 years of aging in the bottle. They have the highest alcohol levels of any European wine. They scream and cuss like an insane boor with a No Fear sticker on his truck, daring you to drink them and maybe not even caring whether you do.

Neither makes an easy match for food. Both are expensive.

But every once in a while, what you despise about something becomes a reason to love it. These wines remain true to their roots while avoiding the pitfalls alluded to above. They express the best of their regions. They contain myriad varietals, some indigenous and some not. They are vast, and not shy.

By the way, neither is especially anxious to pair with food. One surely could conceive of good matches, but some wines are best as objects of attention rather than culinary complements. Really, these are wines to marvel at, and to see where tasting them brings you intellectually and emotionally. Maybe have a bite of cheese or spiced nuts by your side.

But at least on first try, don’t distract yourself; you’re going to want to hurl yourself into the worlds suggested by these wines, unencumbered by other concerns. Open them at least an hour before you plan to drink them. Leave enough to taste a day or two later (a good idea anyway, due to their 14-plus-percent alcohol levels). Experience them the way you would a great music album or a movie: Turn the lights down low, and pay attention.

The white, Domaine du Vieux Lazaret 2008, $31 (Wicked), combines four of the six southern French varietals allowed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape: Majority Grenache blanc, then Clairette, Bourboulenc and Rousanne. At more than $30 (although sometimes available for less), it will be special-occasion wine for most of us. But those occasions will be very special.

If you like (or want to try) sea salt and caramel ice cream, or avant-garde fare like savory foams and inside-out textural presentations, you’ll adore this wine. Dried apricots, raw almonds, starfruit and a long, long seashell finish are part of what it offers. It is certainly elegant, but spryly so, and with brittle acidity.

The red Priorat, La Cartuja 2010, $14 (National) is, perhaps first and foremost, a striking value. Then there’s the fact that although it’s a 2010, it’s ready to rock right now. I have no idea how. It still expresses the famous spiny blue-slate soil of its region. It still bites and yelps.

But it’s much, much softer than any other Priorat I’ve ever had, much less gnarly. You don’t have to be gnarly or insane to be complicated.

Sure, this wine has less potential than more massive Priorats. But it’s just so lavishly savory, combining Garnacha, Mazuelo, Cabernet and Syrah to express powerful lines of iron, smoke and bacon, and tart black cherries.

I love how the Garnacha fruit (those cherries) is so noticeable at first, like a sucking candy dreamt up by Salvador Dali, but then after an hour in the glass gives way to the Cab and Syrah notes from much deeper down in Earth’s mantle.

Please resolve to try at least one of these wines. Next week, more on Priorat: Complicated times call for complicated wines.


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog,, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.