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Wine terms: What is complexity?

October 24, 2010

Here’s a great question I was asked recently in a wine class: What do we mean when we say a wine has (or lacks) complexity? It occurred to me that this is an often tossed around word that can separate new or casual wine drinkers from the wine world, which is a gap I like to bridge. So here’s my take on the subject.

The generally agreed upon definition in the wine world is that complexity is when a wine shows multiple flavors or aromas. This is the result of having started with excellently developed grapes, made with good winemaking techniques, and/or comes from aging a wine properly.

The opposite of complexity, simplicity if you will, is found in a wine that leaves you with only one flavor impression, sort of the wine equivalent of soda pop.

Now the important part. How do you identify complexity in a wine? It may sound obvious, but if you’re new to wine or just beginning to explore higher levels of wine appreciation, it may not be.

First, of course, you need to have a really good bottle or glass of wine. The important part is to not rush through the wine, but savor it a little and let the aromas and flavors linger on your palate. Concentrate just a little on the flavors, looking to see if the very first impression – the moment the wine hits your tongue – begins to change. Did that pinot noir evoke dark cherries followed by a hint of strawberry, and did the finish transform into a touch of peppery spiciness? That’s the beginnings of discovering complexity of flavors. There may be added layers from barrel aging, or a mélange of flavors unfolding in rapid succession from good bottle aging of the wine, or a finish that reveals hints of flavors not present as you first sipped the wine and savored it a while on your tongue.

Ah! And there it is, one of the many wonders of wine that makes us excited to explore more varieties, more regions and more labels to see what new delights we might find. Again, the opposite is a wine that doesn’t excite the palate with multiple flavors. Nothing new develops from the first sip to the last, and the finish is short or doesn’t evoke new flavor sensations.

Are you feeling the excitement behind those last sentences? When wine does that, it stokes the fires of interest and intrigue the way a superb meal or a breathtaking piece of art can. If all you’re drinking is mass-produced, mono-flavored and doesn’t tingle your senses, then by all means splurge once in a while and find a wine that does!

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