Complexa; Authorized but any good?

The legislation separates the grape varieties in two sections; the recommended and the authorized. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist in order to understand that the advocated grapes are the only ones wanted, but then again, why also have a list of authorized grapes?

This is Madeira. Not long ago there was a situation where non-vinifera grapes threatened to dominate the vineyards. Just the thought scares me; what would have happened to the Madeira wine industry if Portugal hadn’t entered the, back then, EC (EU)? With EC came the prohibition to use other grapes than Vitis Vinifera, at least if you wanted to call your stuff Madeira wine, and thankfully the hybrids like Vitis Labrusca were up-rooted (although not as quickly perhaps as one could wish, they still exist in Madeira).

Monocultures always seem to learn the lesson the hard way. In Madeira it became obvious for real when Oidium hit the island in 1852 and then just two decades later, when the Phylloxera louse showed its ugly face. Fed up with vines prone to diseases, I guess one can’t blame the population back then, for planting the hybrid vines directly in the soil – and not as the authorities instructed them – grafting the root on to a Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and so on.

Resistant vinifera varieties such as Tinta Negra actually saved Madeira wine from falling into oblivion. Today it is a recommended grape but sadly there are still few Madeira friends who speaks highly about it. When given the same treatment as a noble grape, it should surprise more than one, that’s for sure.

Tinta Negra is a recommended grape. Complexa, Deliciosa and Triunfo aren’t. They belong to the authorized, the less fancy club. As is the case with Tinta Negra, they are all red grapes. The trilogy is used in the blends and never on their own. In other words; you don’t talk about Complexa. You don’t talk about Deliciosa. You don’t talk about Triunfo.

By the way; ever heard of Complexa? Not? Then prepare yourself for a varietal ride and test your memory! Complexa is a grape used on the island of Madeira. It’s actually a crossing between three grapes; Castelão, Black Muscat and Tintinha. So far, so good. Castelão is also known as Periquita and you will mainly find it around Setúbal on the Portuguese mainland. Some in the south as well – and a little in Douro. Perhaps not known for elegance, more rustic and plenty of tannins.

Then we have the Black Muscat which is a crossing as well, between Trollinger and Muscat d’Alexandrie. Trollinger is mainly a German thing today, although you will also find it in Tirol and Trentino, most likely as Vernatsch where it produces soft and relatively low acidity wines. I’ve had a few, both German and Italian and they are quite charming actually. Not high quality stuff but what makes me really curious is to find out why it was crossed with the aromatic Muscat d’Alexandrie, the simpler Muscat grape.

Then finally there’s the Tintinha, also known as Petit Bouschet. Of course this is a crossing. Parents? Aramon and Teinturier du Cher. Tintinha is an old one, almost two hundred years. Besides France you will find it in the Port wine production. To sum it up; Complexa, born in the 1960′s, has many parents that has been fooling around, to put it mildly.

In October, when visiting Vinhos Barbeito, I was given the opportunity to try two Complexa cask samples, a 2004 and a 2010. It has to be said right away, none of them were of any grand quality and lacked personality which for example the other red varieties do possess, Bastardo and Tinta Negra. Especially the 2004 was passable but lacking intensity. The 2010 had some peculiar smell. I guess it will end up in a blend were it of course wont do any harm.

I’m asking Ricardo Diogo about his little project and what he thinks of Complexa. After all, the man is worth some praise trying to do the best out of an existing situation. I mean, the grape is planted on the island; let’s find out if it can perform.

“Its very resistant to diseases, its skin is harder than the Tinta Negra,” Ricardo tells me.

“I have tried to make wines from Complexa and the quality is extremely poor. I still have a few wines individually stored to see if any miracle can happen but I do not see any good future for them.”

“I think planting Complexa has been one of the biggest errors made. We already had an excess of Tinta Negra and suddenly someone had the idea of planting another red variety that is extremely poor.”

Ricardo points out that the grape many times looks attractive, but there is not much more than that. Furthermore it’s developing inconsistently, often with lots of, as Ricardo puts it, bad unusual aromas when it’s aging.

“The wine coming from this grape is very light, with very low structure. I think the only way the Complexa has survived as wine grape is because it’s blended with the Tinta Negra. I am sure on what I am saying because I have experienced with it. I am not sure if others did it,” Ricardo says and finishes with his dream scenario for Complexa:

“From my point of view in a process of conversion from red to white varieties the Complexa should be the first one to go.”

Although Ricardo Diogo, winemaker and owner at Vinhos Barbeito, experiments with Complexa, it seems clear that he sees no future for the authorized grape and doesn’t believe in miracles – at least not when Complexa is involved. It’s 2013. Madeira wine has probably never had as high quality as of today. Why then are these grapes still allowed to exist, if they don’t contribute? As in most cases, I guess it has become a matter of finances.

Photography of the Complexa bunch (at Campanario) courtesy of Ricardo Diogo. Also a big thanks to Vinhos Barbeito for allowing me to taste these rarities.