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The two elements you need to hone to spot a complex wine

This last article, demystifying wine complexity, relates how your ability to identify a complex wine depends on your knowledge and sensory skills.

Published July 14, 2021

Let's complete our review on what a complex wine is with new data. 

But first, let’s recap what you’ve learned.

You discovered an inconsistency in the way professionals, scientists, and wine enthusiasts define a complex wine. It could be:

  • A multi-layered flavorful wine,
  • A wine imparting multiple and distinct aromas, tastes, and mouthfeels, or
  • A wine that is perceived as the blend of its components and evoking one integrated perception.

I went back to the published research on the topic and shared two studies (1,2):

  1. How does wine aging influence perceived complexity? By Q. Janice Wang and colleagues published in 2021. [Here's the link to my review]
  2. Representation of complexity in wine: Influence of expertise. By Wendy V. Parr and colleagues, published in 2011. [Here's the link to my review]

    You've learned that:

    • The number of sensations and their persistence are the two components of complexity that experts and novice tasters agree on. 
    • Professionals and novice tasters used different words to describe complexity.
    • Regular consumers described a complex wine with words evoking the smell and taste of the wine and how they enjoyed the experience.
    • Experts turned to their technical knowledge to describe complexity. They referred to the production methods which increase complexity in wine and how they impact sensory quality. 
    • Only experts seem able to 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. 
    • Novice tasters focused on the wine sensory experience and didn't clearly understand wine aging ability.
    • The link between wine complexity and its ability to age was more evident on Madeira wines than conceptually for white or red wines.

    Today we address this question:

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

    To help me answer this question, I turned to a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Parr and colleagues (3).

    How do professionals, connoisseurs, and enthusiasts perceive wine complexity when tasting wine?

    This project was a collaboration with a French research institute and was conducted in France. 

    The style chosen was Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, a kind of wine not widely known in France.

    The study protocol.

    Three groups of wine tasters participated in this study

    • 16 wine professionals, working in the wine industry,
    • 30 connoisseurs, serious wine lovers identified via a knowledge questionnaire,
    • 41 wine consumers, wine lovers with minimal wine education.

    Researchers invited these 87 wine tasters to come twice a week apart and assess 13 wines. 

    These wines came from an experiment aiming at comparing different production methods of Sauvignon blanc wines in New Zealand. 

    During the first tasting session, half of the participants evaluated the 13 wines and grouped wine samples they perceived to be similar. This task helps assessed participants to perceive differences among the 13 wines.

    The other half evaluated the 13 wines with a complexity questionnaire developed by the French researchers. They rated each wine on 8 attributes:

    • How familiar they were with the wine, 
    • The number of perceptible flavors they detected, 
    • How easy it was to identify separate flavors, 
    • How flavors were in harmony (how flavors blend), 
    • How flavors were balanced, 
    • How long was the persistence of wine in the mouth (length), and 
    • How concentrated were the flavors (flavor strength),
    • How overall, they perceived wine complexity.

    Participants performed the other task the following week. By the end of week 2, everyone had completed the complexity questionnaire for each wine and the sorting task.

    The study results.

    Did the three groups differ in their ability to class wines based on similarity?

    • Professionals were more skilled at finding differences among the 13 wines than the novice tasters, as I would have expected.
    • Wine connoisseurs behaved similarly to the professionals, confirming what we know: noticing subtle differences of taste and aroma comes with experience and practice.

    Did the three groups explain perceived wine complexity differently with the complexity questionnaire?

    The three groups found the same qualitative differences among the 13 wines using the 8 complexity attributes. 

    But, how significant these differences were, varied depending on wine expertise.

    • Professionals judged the 13 wines less complex overall, with more ease in identifying individual flavors than the other two groups.
    • Professionals associated the number of flavors, the harmony, balance, linger, and familiarity with the overall perception of wine complexity.
    • Connoisseurs expressed complexity with higher scores for the number of flavors, harmony, and more intense flavor overall.
    • Regular wine consumers identified complexity in wine with overall flavor strength and linger.

    So, does wine knowledge influence how we perceive wine complexity with our senses? 

    Based on this study, yes.

    Experience and technical expertise make you explain perceived complexity by the number of different flavors you perceive and how they blend (harmony).

    Regular wine consumers define complexity based on the strength and persistence of the flavors they experience. 

    This explanation goes along with how regular consumers described wine complexity in the 2011 study: it was all about the sensory experience.

    These results also concur with the 2021 study on Madeira wines. Both depth and length of sensory perceptions defined perceived Madeira wine complexity. 

    With experience, we start to understand how flavor harmony and balance are essential in our wine appreciation. I'm not sure we need extensive technical wine education to reach that level of appreciation. We sure need more tasting experiences with well-blended wine flavors and unbalanced wines. 

    Sensory experience and basic wine knowledge are the two elements you need to hone to spot a complex wine.

    Indeed, depending on where you are in your wine education journey, you’ll experience a complex wine as having:

    • Multiple, distinct flavors, intense and persistent in the mouth. Although you struggle to differentiate wines based on complexity, you find the tasting experience of a complex wine enjoyable [novice taster],
    • Multiple, distinct flavors, intense, and persistent that blend well together. You can perceive differences between complex and less complex wines [knowledgeable wine taster],
    • Multiple, distinct, familiar flavors, persistent that blend and balance well together. You perceive differences between complex and less complex wines. You define complexity by the production methods and all the factors impacting the sensory perceptions characteristic of a complex wine [wine professional].

    Did this series of articles help you clarify what a complex wine is? Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.


    1- Qian Janice Wang, Tadas Niaura, Kevin Kantono, How does wine ageing influence perceived complexity? Temporal-Choose-All-That-Apply (TCATA) reveals temporal drivers of complexity in experts and novices, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 92, 2021, Pages 104230.

    2- 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.

    3- Schlich, P., Medel Maraboli, M., Urbano, C. and Parr, W. (2015), Perceived complexity in wine. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research, Volume 21, 2015, Pages 168-178. 

    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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