What Is Spice in Wine?

spicy wine

Red wines, in particular, are often described on the label as “spicy”. But the description rarely tells us which spices they’re actually talking about. The last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself by saying “oh yes, that’s a spicy one. I’m definitely getting turmeric and paprika there.” When it actually (and this is far more likely) smells of black pepper and cloves. So what types of spicy notes should you be looking for when “nosing” a wine?

In my experience, the most common spicy notes are pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and aniseed/menthol/eucalyptus (it can be hard to tell the latter three apart, but they’re among my favourites). Cardamom and ginger can also be found, although I find them harder to detect.

These specific flavours are easier to smell than taste, but they often come buried beneath the dominant aromas of dark fruit and/or oak. Oak barrels can impart their own spiciness, of course (with generally what are known as “baking spices”), but I find oak too often gives us a generic woody/vanilla tone. If overdone, this can mask a grape’s subtlety, complexity and individuality (or, a lack of those things in cheaper wines).

If we’re talking red: Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec are often described as spicy, but sometimes spices in whites can be even more dramatic — and easier to detect. Gewürztraminer, riesling and viognier are three examples of whites that can light up your tongue like a Christmas tree with their spicy perfumes.

By the way, don’t confuse spicy wine with spiced wine (mulled wine, for example), which has had spices deliberately added.

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