by Nicole Mackay
Discover what makes some wines spicy and how they present themselves in various grape varieties.
F rom chewy to velvety, red wine descriptors can be perplexing. Rarely—if ever—are they meant to be taken literally. Chewy or velvety, most often referred to as tannins, don’t involve solid food to nibble upon or a soft textile. Yet, they perfectly describe the bold and luxurious mouthfeel associated with rich, red wines. Spicy, on the other hand, invokes a different sentiment, one that conjures a prickly sensation on our tongue and beads of sweat on our brow. We don’t dab our foreheads while sipping, yet black pepper spice, anise and eucalyptus all find themselves on tasting notes. Can wine be spicy? It can, absolutely, but not in the way some may think. Discover what makes some wines spicy and how they present themselves in various grape varieties. What is Spice in Wine? Let’s start by differentiating “spice” and “spicy.” Spicy wine, which one might think makes our nose run, body sweat or mouth burn, doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in food. The chemical compounds found in, say, hot capsicum (chili pepper) present themselves more through aromas than flavours and therefore don’t result
Common Spice(y) Aromatics
in the same neurological response. However, other compounds, like alcohol and high acidity, can cause a gentle warming sensation in the mouth. This is often referred to as piquant. Piquant can demonstrate itself for numerous reasons. Everything, from the inherent character of a red wine grape to the influence of oak, can bring spicy characteristics to the forefront of the glass. Shiraz/Syrah, for instance, has high amounts of pepperiness derived from a compound called “rotundone” that exists in the grape. On the other hand, a grape with high acidity levels, such as Carinena/Carignan, can also incite a tingly mouthfeel. A wine with high alcohol can shift the sensation from warming to burning, depending on the ABV. In a blind tasting, identifying a wine with 15 to 16 percent alcohol is fairly apparent because of this feeling. Spice in wine, on the other hand, or the aromatic notes we often perceive as cooking spices like black pepper, cinnamon or clove, don’t usually impart an exuberant piquant sensation (although sometimes they can). Spiced aromas can help determine if the wine went through oak aging, or even help steer towards the perfect food pairing.
SPICY AROMATICS: BLACK, WHITE OR GREEN PEPPER Fresh cracked black peppercorn or a dusting of white pepper aromas come from the rotundone compound. It increases during the late stages of ripening and is therefore fairly evident in wines from warm climates, like Australian Shiraz or California Zinfandel. In contrast, green pepper notes come from the pyrazine chemical compound and are often associated with being less ripe or perhaps from a cool climate, like a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. SPICE AROMATICS: CINNAMON, CLOVES, NUTMEG AND ANISEED Baking spices. We know them and love them in carrot cake, gingerbread cookies or even added to mulled wine. Not only are these aromas sentimentally warming, but they can literally raise our body temperature or help influence circulation. Many baking spice notes come from the influence of oak aging, as compounds
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