Complex wine … what’s that mean?

“Complexity” … there’s another of those wine words that you’ll often hear me use. It’s a characteristic that I prize. When paired with its cousin “balance,” complexity often signals a wine that’s well-made and enjoyable, even at affordable prices.

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But what exactly does it mean? Is there any simple and clear way to describe what makes a wine complex?

A friend many years ago got the sense of it while talking about an Italian red wine that we all liked: “There’s a lot going on in it,” she said, and ever since that’s been a handy way to recognize complexity for me. It describes a wine that’s multi-dimensional, with layers of flavor that don’t necessarily make themselves known all at once but that take their turns coming to the front in a swirling dance.

“For many in the wine business,” Becca Yeamans-Irwin wrote in a 2018 post on her blog, The Academic Wino, “complexity in wine refers to the combination of flavors and aromas in a wine evolving over the course of a tasting session.”

In her article, An Academic Foray Into Complexity in Wine: An Analysis of Language, Yeamans-Irwin (who uses the byline “Becca”) cited the term’s definition by the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET): “Complexity is a desired feature in a wine and one which can result from fruit character alone or from a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors.”

However, Becca went on, “it’s not as simple as plainly stating that a wine in and of itself is complex.” WSET’s definition makes that point, saying, “we should use the word ‘complex’ with context. It is not enough to say whether a wine is complex or not; you have to explain what provides the complexity.”

Wine writer J’Nai Gaither took on the topic in a recent Wine Enthusiast article, “What Does ‘Complexity’ Mean in Wine?”

“Of all the wine jargon most misconstrued and controversial, ‘complexity’ is arguably near the top,” Gaither wrote. “Perhaps that’s because there’s no standard definition for ‘complexity.’ But leading wine experts have opinions.”

Gaiter offered a useful take from Nova Cadamatre, a Napa-based Master of Wine and consulting winemaker: “Complexity in wine means that the wine is multi-faceted. It may have many types of aromas and flavors or it may have layers of depth on the palate – usually all of the above to be a truly complex wine,” she says. “It must introduce itself slowly over time and not lay all of the cards on the table at once.”

Gaither’s translation of Cadamatre’s prose: “Complex wine is usually not one-note, and certainly not boring. Myriad flavors abound and textures are often tangible. The flavor of complex wine can evolve, both in the glass and in the bottle, in anywhere between minutes to hours.”

In a article headlined “The Simple Truth about Complexity in Wine,” writer Margaret Rand wrapped it up this way: “You could also say of a complex wine that it has layers of flavor, that it develops on the palate. A complex wine doesn’t just have one flavor all the way through: it starts off one way, then different notes emerge on the mid-palate and on the finish. It’s the main reason, apart from alcohol, why wine is more interesting than fruit juice.”

Then Rand offered a caveat or two: “But not all wine is complex. Great wine is complex, good wine is complex, simple wine probably isn’t. And overoaked, over-alcoholic wine in a bottle so heavy you risk a shoulder injury by lifting it? Frequently not. In fact, if a winemaker assures me that the wine I’m about to taste is ‘really, really complex,’ warning bells ring. What they call ‘complex,’ I probably call ‘trying too hard’.”

Côtes du Rhône Syrah grapes, blue-black and beautiful.

Côtes du Rhône Syrah grapes, blue-black and beautiful.

Do all these opinions converge on a central point? I think so, and perhaps it still comes back to the old reliable “There’s a lot going on in it.” Adding to that, it’s probably a good idea for wine writers, like me, to add a few words about what “complex” means for the specific wine in my glass.

For example, I used the word in my report this week’s featured wine, Clos Bellane 2019 “La Petite Bellane”. It’s a Côtes du Rhône Villages that’s 100% Syrah, an unusual thing in a region where the rules require vineyards be planted in at least 50% Grenache. Syrah comes in only in a requirement that it and Mourvèdre comprise another 20% of plantings.

But here we have it, a full-on Syrah Côtes du Rhône Villages that is deliciously complex in its layers of unoaked black fruit, an impression of blackberries, plums, and blackcurrant that weave and flow on the nose and in the glass. What makes it complex? Some of it has to come from the fruit, and that’s certified organic by Ecocert. More happens in the winery, where it’s fermented with indigenous yeasts and left to age in concrete vats. It’s a good wine, and plenty complex for the under-$20 price. You’ll find my tasting report below.


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Today’s Tasting Report

Clos Bellane 2019 “La Petite Bellane” Côtes du Rhône Villages ($15.99)

"La Petite Bellane"

Certified organic, fermented with indigenous yeast, and fermented and aged in concrete vats with no oak exposure, La Petite Bellane is dark purple in color almost all the way to a thin, clear edge. After a little time in the glass it woke up to delicious aromas of blackberries, plums, and blackcurrant – with a distinct note of fresh-ground pepper in the background. Mixed black fruits on the palate are shaped by crisp acidity and a backdrop of soft but persistent tannins that linger with the fruit into a long finish. Its 14.5% alcohol shows as a touch of warmth, but as the wine opens with airing the alcohol falls into perspective in a wine of appealing complexity. An excellent Côtes du Rhône Villages, idiosyncratic for its all-Syrah blend. U.S. importer: Skurnik Wines, NYC. (Nov. 26, 2022)

FOOD MATCH: The importer suggests pairing it with beef or lamb, and that makes sense. It was good, too, with a pasta dish with tomatoes and Italian sausage with fennel and garlic, although a bit of piquant heat in the pasta sauce wasn’t overly friendly with the wine’s alcoholic edge.

WHEN TO DRINK: I expect it to keep and possibly improve under good cellar conditions for five years or so.

I got this bottle for a couple of bucks under’s $28 average U.S. retail. It’s a fine table red and a fair bargain right up to the $20 range.

Here’s a detailed tech sheet from importer Skurnik Wines.

Check prices and find vendors for La Petite Bellane on

Read more about the Côtes du Rhône Villages at this Wine-Searcher link, where you’ll find listings for dozens of wines of the region.

Follow this Wine-Searcher link to read about the Syrah grape and browse wines of this variety from around the world.

Wine Focus December 2022:
Cabernet Franc and Meunier

Another year is almost gone! Another Wine Focus series is almost complete. We’ll finish off the year with two red grapes that have their days in December.

Cabernet Franc has its day December 4, and Meunier (aka Pinot Meunier) on December 16. Cabernet Franc gets lots of bottlings on its own (e.g., Loire), while Meunier is mostly used in blends. That said, Meunier does have some proponents in Champagne who do mostly or even 100% Meunier wines, and there are some occasional still bottlings. Of course Cabernet Franc is also a huge player in Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends, so there are lots of wines to choose from this month!

So open a bottle of either Cab Franc or Meunier this month, bring your comments and questions, and join us in the year’s last Wine Focus for December 2022!


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Good wines we’ve tried under $10.99!

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10.99 or less that I’ve told you about in recent years. In some cases the prices may have risen over the $10.99 mark since I reviewed them, but they should still be excellent bargains. Please tell us about your favorites!


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