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Are you overthinking wine complexity?

Do regular consumers think about wine complexity in similar terms? Discover what a New Zealand research team found out.

Published July 7, 2021

Is a wine complex because...

  • We experience many sensory sensations at the same time, aromas, tastes, mouthfeel? or
  • It isn’t easy to translate these perceptions into words?

These are the two questions that prompted this series of articles on wine complexity. 
My students argued that the second option explained why they struggle so much in finding words to describe wine aromas! They start their journey to learn how to use their senses to appreciate and describe wine. And it’s tough!

I started our exploration of wine complexity a few weeks ago by sharing a study on Madeira wines published in 2021.
[Click here if you missed it]

The scientists wanted to assess if perceived complexity when tasting a wine increased with wine aging. They wondered if a complex wine was defined by its components (sometimes called depth), its evolution or persistence in the mouth (or called length), or both. They found that

  • The longer the wine is aged, the more complex its ratings by the wine experts.
  • Both depth and length of sensory perceptions defined complexity.

Researchers had also invited in this study novice tasters, i.e., wine lovers with minimal wine education. Results showed that these regular consumers could not detect noticeable differences when tasting wines of different ages. But they agreed with experts that complex wines expressed more sensory attributes, intense and lingering perceptions. But novices failed to distinguish the wines they tasted solely based on complexity.

So, is our ability to characterize a complex wine dependent on our wine experience?

I turned to Dr. Parr’s extensive work on the topic. She has investigated wine complexity from people’s understanding of what it represents (mental representation) and how it translates when tasting a wine (sensory perception). Here’s what she and her team found.

How we think about wine complexity

In 2011, she reported a study comparing experts and novices on their verbal definition of wine complexity and its relation to wine ability to age.

The study protocol

Thirty-nine wine professionals from Australia and New Zealand and 30 wine consumers took part in individual interviews.

The researcher asked them the following questions
‘‘Thinking about wine in general.’’
1. ‘‘What are the first words that come to mind when I say ‘COMPLEX’?’’
2. ‘‘Can you explain what you mean by that or define X?’’ (X = each word evoked).
3. ‘‘In a second step, please give importance to the concept ‘COMPLEX’ of each of the words or phrases you mentioned. To do this, use the numbers 1 (most important) to 4 (least important).’’
4. ‘‘Assess whether the words or phrases that you mentioned are rather positive or negative. To do this, use the scale from 3 (totally negative) to 3 (totally positive) through 0 (neither positive nor negative).’’

Then, each participant responded to the same questions (1-4) when prompted to think about
white wine ability to age well (second round of questions) and
red wine ability to age well (third round of questions).

The scientists used text analysis software to assess the frequency of words associated with complexity, white wine age-ability, and red wine age-ability. This work took place before natural language processing was a thing.

The study results

How to define wine complexity?

Regular consumers described a complex wine with words evoking the smell and taste of the wine and how they enjoyed the experience. They also associated complexity with wine quality, grape varieties, and the region of origin, maybe because it was hard to explain otherwise.

Experts turned to their technical knowledge to describe complexity. They referred to the production methods increasing complexity in wine and how they impact sensory quality. They mentioned mainly mouthfeel and balance.

In summary,
  • As wine lovers, we define complexity by an enjoyable sensory experience when tasting a complex wine, even if we can’t describe what we experience.
  • As experts, we define complexity by analyzing wine components and how they relate to the production of a complex wine.

These differences of thinking make sense to me. As wine lovers, we don’t need to think about all the technical aspects of producing wine. But these are the expectations from wine professionals.

How complexity relates to wine age-ability?

Only experts could articulate what makes a white wine or red wine age well. They used technical references to production methods or sensory attributes as indicators of age-ability. Wine novices focused on the sensory experience and didn’t clearly understand wine aging ability.

To address the earlier question: Is our ability to characterize a complex wine dependent on our wine experience?

The answer is NO. Our ability to characterize complexity doesn’t depend on our experience. Still, our definition of complexity does depend on our wine experience.
The relation between complexity and wine age-ability requires additional knowledge that only professionals seemed to have in this study.

The question that comes to mind now is: 

Does our wine knowledge influence how we perceive wine complexity with our senses? 

Let’s find out more next week.


What do you think? How would you answer this question? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

W.V. Parr, M. Mouret, S. Blackmore, T. Pelquest-Hunt, I. Urdapilleta, Representation of complexity in wine: Influence of expertise, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 22, Issue 7, 2011, Pages 647-660,

Categories: wine aroma, Tasting education, Wine Language

Isabelle Lesschaeve

Principal, Blog author, and Wine Tasting Coach

Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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