Several weeks ago I was conducting a tasting for a group visiting Napa Valley, and as we were enjoying a broad range of local wines the conversation turned to the frequently heard (and often misunderstood) descriptor “complexity.” We are all familiar with the term (and its adjective form “complex”) as it relates to personal and business issues, but most are not sure how it correlates to wine.

Webster defines complexity as “the state of not being simple” and complex as “a whole made up of complicated or interrelated parts.” But how does all this work as a wine descriptor, and is it really meaningful in assessing the true quality of a wine?

When I think of complexity in wine, I see layers of aromatics and flavors that work together in an integrated and balanced fashion so that the total impression presents itself as greater than the sum of its parts.

Complexity is far more than the “fruit bowl” of smells and flavors we often read in a critic’s tasting notes. It is the signature statement of all great wines and the missing link in wines that may be pleasant to drink but are rather simple in nature.

A wine showing complexity exhibits something special from the bouquet on the nose to the array of flavors and textures on the palate continuing on to the intricacies of the finish. It is not only a “complete package,” it is something that leaves us contemplating where simple ends and complex begins. Truly a delightful discovery.

While a chef creates a dish showing a complex range of flavors with the judicious addition of spices and other carefully selected ingredients, a winemaker’s role is far more restricted when achieving the same result with his wine. The elements of a complex wine do not come from “additions” but rather from the natural character of the vineyard and varietal, careful farming that produces excellent fruit and judicious handling in the winery.

During the mid-1990s, many winemakers both here and abroad to a great extent sacrificed the elegant and enchanting character of complexity. Instead, they gravitated toward an “international” style exhibiting more linear and powerful fruit-driven characteristics that began to garner high scores from a few influential critics. Yes, the term “complex” was often seen in the reviews but the true meaning of the word was generally blurred by the one-dimensional and super-extracted character of the wines.

Although complexity is not about power, the two can peacefully coexist as with the famous “iron fist in the velvet glove” analogy describing the unique character of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Here, the intense structure and tannic composition support the more elegant facets rather than overshadow them, yielding a complex tapestry encompassing many levels of aromatics, flavor and texture evident not only on their own but also in concert with one another.

By their very nature, great vineyards, pristine fruit and excellent winemaking all contribute to achieving complexity in the finished wine. Blended wines often show added layers with each varietal’s contribution. In the U.S., wines labeled by their varieties may also contain up to 25 percent of other grapes to add additional character and influence style. And let’s not overlook single varietals like pinot noir and chardonnay in Burgundy or nebbiolo in Barolo, etc., to produce wines of extraordinary complexity and character when handled correctly in the vineyard and winery.

To paraphrase Webster, complexity in wine is certainly the opposite of simple and definitely expresses the art of interrelated parts creating a greater whole.

My Jan. 8 column — “Beyond the tasting” — struck a familiar note with several readers sharing their personal experiences and thoughts.

Paul — You have expressed the often overlooked but important “social” aspects of enjoying wine. I have heard that the most disappointing experience of a golfer may be hitting a “hole-in-one” without a witness. Close behind may be enjoying a great bottle of wine without being able to share it, discuss it, and reminisce about the experience as the years pass.

Kevin — Enjoyed the column. But you missed one of the celebratory uses of Champagne: spray around the clubhouse crazily, while wearing goggles, after your team has just won the World Series.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or email me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.


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