The tantalizing world of spicy wines, specifically the realm of spicy red wines, is a sensory journey like no other. From the rich notes of pepper and clove to hints of fragrant herbs, each sip offers an exploration of complexity and depth that can transform the humble act of wine tasting into an adventure. This article aims to demystify spicy wines, shedding light on their origins, characteristics, and varieties. Let’s embark on a journey to discover the secrets and intricacies of spicy wines, and why they are gaining such popularity.
Defining Spicy Wine
A “spicy wine” intrigues the palate with a complexity that goes beyond the typical fruity or floral notes associated with wines. Instead, it teases the senses with a warm, distinctive tang that may evoke the rich, layered flavors of a well-spiced meal. However, contrary to what the term might suggest, spicy wines aren’t about heat or a fiery kick. It’s about the intricate interplay of various flavor compounds that create a well-rounded and interesting profile.
Spiciness in wines refers to the aromas and flavors that remind us of various spices. These can range from the heat of black or white pepper to the sweet warmth of cinnamon, the aromatic notes of cloves, or even the earthy tang of turmeric. The so-called spiciness can also be attributed to non-spice related but similarly warm and complex notes like tobacco, leather, or cocoa.
Terroir and Spiciness
In the world of wines, “terroir” is a French term that refers to the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced. This includes factors such as the soil type, climate, and topography. The terroir of a wine region can significantly influence the taste and aroma of the grapes grown there, and therefore the wines produced. It’s one of the primary reasons why the same grape variety can yield significantly different wines when grown in different regions.
The influence of terroir on the spiciness of a wine cannot be overstated. For example, wines produced in regions with more sun exposure can often exhibit riper, fruit-forward characteristics along with pronounced spicy notes. The unique soil compositions of certain regions can also contribute to the spiciness. This influence of the terroir is most evident in wines made with minimal human intervention, where the natural characteristics of the grape are allowed to shine through.
Spicy Wine Grape Varieties
Every grape variety has a unique set of aromas and flavors it can exhibit. While these can be influenced by the terroir and winemaking process, the grape variety itself plays a significant role in determining the wine’s profile. In the context of spicy wines, some varieties are more predisposed to developing spicy notes.
Spicy red wines often originate from grape varieties that have a naturally higher concentration of certain compounds contributing to spiciness. Syrah, Grenache, and Zinfandel are prime examples of this, with their propensity to express an array of spicy notes.
Moreover, the cultivation and harvesting processes can impact the spiciness of wines. For example, the decision to harvest grapes later in the season can lead to riper fruit with more concentrated flavors, potentially intensifying the spicy notes. Conversely, grapes harvested earlier might display greener, herbaceous flavors and aromas.
Spicy Red Wine Varieties
There’s a wide range of spicy red wines available, each offering its unique interpretation of spiciness. Here, we’ll focus on three varieties that are particularly known for their spicy character: Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache, and Zinfandel.
Syrah, or Shiraz as it’s called in Australia, is often considered the king of spicy red wines. Originating in the Rhône Valley of France, this grape variety has found success in several other wine regions worldwide, including Australia, California, and South Africa.
The flavor profile of Syrah is complex and multifaceted. Depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made, Syrah can range from medium-bodied with vibrant red fruit flavors to full-bodied with dark fruit flavors. However, the hallmark of Syrah is its robust spiciness, with black pepper notes often taking center stage, supported by undertones of cloves, licorice, and sometimes even smoky or meaty notes.
Recommended Syrah wines to try include the Penfolds Grange from Australia for a powerful, full-bodied example, or the E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie from France for a more elegant, traditional expression of the grape.
Grenache is another grape variety known for its spicy character. Although originally from Spain, where it’s known as Garnacha, Grenache has been widely adopted in France, particularly in the southern Rhône Valley, and in other regions like Australia and California.
Grenache wines are typically high in alcohol and low in acidity, with a rich, fruit-forward character. The spiciness in Grenache often plays a supporting role to the dominant fruit flavors, adding depth and complexity to the wine. Common spicy notes include white pepper, cinnamon, and anise, which mingle beautifully with the grape’s characteristic red fruit flavors.
Top Grenache wines to try include the Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape from France or the Aalto PS from Spain’s famous Ribera del Duero region.
Zinfandel is a grape variety with a somewhat mysterious history. Its origins were long debated until DNA testing revealed it to be identical to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski. However, it’s in California that Zinfandel truly found its home and gained its reputation.
Zinfandel wines are known for their ripe, jammy fruit flavors, complemented by a wide array of spicy notes. These can include black pepper, clove, cinnamon, and cardamom. Thanks to the grape’s high sugar content, Zinfandel wines are often higher in alcohol, which can enhance the perception of spiciness.
For a taste of classic Californian Zinfandel, try the wines from Ridge Vineyards or Turley Wine Cellars.
The Best Spicy Red Wines
For this list we kept it to wines under $60
The 2020 Zinfandel from Carlisle Vineyard showcases a deep ruby-garnet hue. As you take it in, the nose captivates with a bold fusion of red and black fruits, punctuated by nuanced notes of blood orange, clove, and framboise liqueur. Sipping it reveals a robust character: vibrant red cherry and black plum take the lead, intertwined with whispers of cinnamon and licorice. An undercurrent of brambly berries and a touch of warming alcohol enrich the experience, while refined tannins add structure. We’d recommend letting it breathe or even allowing it another year in the bottle to truly flourish.
In the 2020 Syrah The Deal from Sundance Vineyard, a deep ruby and purple blend engages the eye. The wine confidently presents a bouquet rich in black plums, dark cherries, and a striking floral allure underscored by notes of iron, crushed stone, and pink peppercorn. On the palate, it unveils an elegant dance of black raspberry and spiced plum, wrapped in a silky texture. Although full-bodied, the wine retains a sharp focus and unveils polished tannins that offer both embrace and structure. The blend was meticulously matured for 21 months in French oak, with 40% being new barrels, gifting the wine its exquisite finesse. A redolent finish lingers, spotlighting floral undertones and a touch of spice. A must-try Syrah, testament to the value and craftsmanship of the vineyard.
K Vinters does it again with their 2020 The Boy Grenache. This wine captures the senses with its rich tapestry of flavors. Each sip reveals a medley of dark cherry, dried ancho chili, and the earthy depth of fresh porcini, gracefully intertwined with the zestiness of orange peel. A second layer emerges on the palate: huckleberry blends seamlessly with smoked herbs and a tantalizing hint of fennel seed. The aroma carries a floral bouquet, punctuated by dried strawberries, ripe cherry, and exotic spices like star anise and black cardamom. Notably, the wine exudes a lively presence, with cocoa-dusted red berries taking center stage, framed by firm yet juicy tannins and invigorating acidity. Displaying both strength and elegance, its charm is undeniably persuasive. Whether savored now or allowed to evolve, its allure is unmistakable.
Exploring Spicy White Wines
Not to be outdone by their red counterparts, white wines can also offer intriguing spice profiles. Two such examples are the Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner.
The Gewürztraminer grape is originally from Germany but has also found success in Alsace, France, and various New World regions. This grape is known for its intensely aromatic profile, which can include notes of rose, lychee, and tropical fruits, along with a distinctive spiciness reminiscent of ginger, nutmeg, or cinnamon. Try the Gewürztraminer from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace or the Dr. Konstantin Frank Gewürztraminer from the Finger Lakes region in New York for a taste of this unique wine.
Austria’s signature grape, Grüner Veltliner, offers a fresh and lively profile with citrus and green apple notes, along with a distinctive white pepper spice that’s become its trademark. The Grüner Veltliner wines from producers like Weingut Knoll or Domaine Wachau are excellent examples of this spicy white wine.
The Best Spicy White Wines
For this list we kept it to wines under $60
As you approach this Gewurz, you’re met with a captivating allure of pink rose, jasmine, and orchid. Its profound sensuality is undeniable, drawing you in with each aromatic note. On the palate, the wine enchants and envelops with its depth, offering a voyage through a spectrum of flavors and sensations. A dangerously prolonged finish stands as testament to its biodynamically grown origins, further underscored by the prestigious Demeter certification. Whether you savor its magic now or let it evolve, its charm remains undeniable.
Upon the first encounter, a symphony of aromas captivates: the delicate scent of rose petals harmonizes with an array of exotic fruits, with mangosteen taking a slight lead over lychee. Delving deeper reveals a bouquet abundant in juicy cantaloupe, guava, and nectarine, which meld seamlessly with hints of spicy ginger and aromatic cardamom. The palate is treated to a dance of succulence and elegance, wrapped in a silky texture. This vintage’s true extravagance peeks through only towards its flamboyant finish, where a touch of salinity elevates its ample body with ease. A masterful creation from biodynamically grown grapes, it invites one to either indulge immediately or to let it mature, deepening its allure.
Immerse yourself in the 2021 Grüner Veltliner Fass 4, where depths of intensity meet purity. It offers a delightful fruitiness on the palate, perfectly paired with fresh and savory notes. Its medium body effortlessly carries a round texture, while the finish introduces a slight bitterness, accented by stimulating and salty touches. There’s undeniable grip and tension in this Veltliner, making it truly captivating. With a modest 12.5% alcohol and a handy screw-cap closure, it promises to shine even brighter after 2022.
Tasting Techniques for Spicy Wines
Spicy wines demand careful attention and a thoughtful approach when tasting. Start by observing the wine’s color and clarity. Then take a moment to swirl the wine gently in your glass. This allows the wine to interact with the air, helping to release its aromatic compounds.
As you take a sniff, pay attention to the layers of aromas. You’ll likely pick up fruit notes first, followed by secondary aromas, including the spice notes. When you take a sip, let the wine spread across your palate before swallowing. This will give you a chance to identify the different flavor components, including the spiciness.
The Winemaking Process
The journey from vine to wine involves several steps, each of which can influence the final product’s taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. Among these, fermentation and aging are two critical stages that can significantly impact the wine’s spiciness.
During fermentation, yeasts convert the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol, releasing various aroma compounds in the process. The choice of yeast strain, fermentation temperature, and other conditions can influence which compounds are produced and thus shape the wine’s flavor profile, including its spicy character.
Aging, on the other hand, allows the wine to develop additional complexity. Oak aging, in particular, can impart spicy notes to the wine, thanks to the natural compounds present in the wood. These can range from vanilla and coconut to clove, cinnamon, and other sweet spices. The extent of these flavors will depend on factors such as the type and age of the oak, the length of aging, and the winemaker’s specific practices.
Pairing Spicy Red Wine with Food
Pairing spicy red wine with food is an art that can significantly enhance your dining experience. The rule of thumb is to balance the intensity and flavor profiles of the wine and the dish. The robust character and spicy notes of these wines make them a perfect partner for hearty, flavorful dishes.
Spicy red wines are typically full-bodied and rich, making them an excellent match for red meat dishes like steak, lamb, and venison. The spicy flavors can also complement spicy dishes, mirroring the heat and providing a harmonious pairing.
When it comes to cheese, opt for aged varieties that can stand up to the wine’s intensity. Think along the lines of aged cheddar, gouda, or comté. The high fat and salt content in these cheeses can balance the wine’s tannins and accentuate its fruity and spicy flavors.
How to Serve Spicy Wines
Serving spicy wines correctly can greatly enhance your tasting experience. It starts with ensuring the wine is at the optimal temperature. Spicy red wines are best served slightly below room temperature, typically between 60-65°F (15-18°C). This allows the wine to express its full array of flavors and aromas without being too warm or too cool.
Choosing the right wine glass is also crucial. A glass with a larger bowl, like those typically used for red wines, is recommended. This allows the spicy red wine to aerate properly, helping to soften the tannins and unlock the complex flavors and aromas within.
The Health Benefits of Spicy Red Wine
Numerous studies have suggested a link between moderate red wine consumption and health benefits. From a heart health perspective, red wine contains polyphenols such as resveratrol, which has antioxidant properties and may help protect the lining of the blood vessels in the heart.
Additionally, spicy red wine, due to its complexity and variety of flavors, often contains a diverse range of compounds. These may include various types of phenols, which have been linked to positive effects on heart health and longevity. It’s essential to note, however, that more research is needed in this area, and any potential benefits must be balanced against the risks associated with alcohol consumption.
The Impact of Aging on Spicy Wines
Aging can significantly impact a wine’s profile, and spicy wines are no exception. As a wine ages, its flavors and aromas can become more integrated and complex, and new, tertiary notes can emerge. Spicy notes can become more pronounced with age, but they can also evolve and morph into different forms of spiciness.
It’s also crucial to consider the wine’s storage conditions, as these can influence the aging process. To maintain the wine’s quality, it should be stored in a cool, dark, and relatively humid environment, ideally at a constant temperature of around 55°F (13°C).
Debunking Spicy Wine Myths
There are numerous misconceptions surrounding spicy wines. One common myth is that spicy wines are hot or spicy in the same way that chili peppers are. As we’ve explained, the spiciness in wine refers to notes reminiscent of various spices, not a sense of heat or capsaicin-induced burn.
Another myth is that spicy wines are only produced in hot climates. While it’s true that certain warmer climates can yield wines with pronounced spice notes, spicy wines can be produced in various regions worldwide, depending on the grape variety and winemaking techniques employed.
Investing in Spicy Wines
For wine enthusiasts and collectors, investing in spicy wines can be a worthwhile endeavor. Certain spicy wines, particularly those from renowned producers or excellent vintages, can increase in value over time, making them attractive investment opportunities.
Factors to consider when investing include the wine’s provenance, the reputation of the producer, and the quality of the specific vintage. It’s also beneficial to monitor wine market trends and seek advice from experts or professional brokers.
Future Trends in Spicy Wines
As consumer preferences evolve and the effects of climate change influence viticulture, the world of spicy wines is likely to see new trends emerge. Consumers are increasingly seeking out unique, distinctive wines that offer an expression of their terroir, which could bode well for spicy wines, given their distinct character and complexity.
At the same time, climate change is affecting wine regions worldwide, potentially altering the profile of wines produced in these areas. While it’s difficult to predict the exact outcomes, these changes could result in new spicy wine expressions in the future.
From the fiery notes of pepper in a robust Shiraz to the sweet warmth of cinnamon in a jammy Zinfandel, spicy wines offer an intriguing sensory journey that is continually evolving. By diving into the world of spicy wines, you’re not just exploring a category of wines; you’re embarking on a voyage of discovery that encompasses culture, geography, science, and art. So raise a glass of spicy wine, savor its complexity, and let the adventure unfold.
Spicy Wine FAQs
What are spicy wines?
Spicy wines are wines that have a distinct flavor profile characterized by notes of spices such as pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, mint, ginger, or cardamom. These flavors can be influenced by the type of grape, the aging process, and the region where the wine is produced.
What is an example of a spicy wine?
Syrah/Shiraz is a popular example of a spicy wine. It is known for its peppery note. Other examples include wines made from Grenache, Petite Sirah, Malbec, or Zinfandel grapes.
Is spicy wine a thing?
Yes, spicy wine is indeed a thing. The term “spicy” in the context of wine refers to the presence of flavors and aromas that are reminiscent of various spices. This can be due to the type of grape used, the aging process, or the influence of the region where the wine is produced.
What gives wine a spicy taste?
The spicy taste in wine can come from several sources. It can be influenced by the type of grape used, with certain varieties like Syrah and Grenache often exhibiting spicy characteristics. The aging process, particularly when oak barrels are used, can also contribute to a wine’s spiciness. Additionally, the climate and soil in the region where the grapes are grown can impact the wine’s flavor profile.
Can all wines be spicy?
Not all wines are spicy. The spiciness of a wine depends on the grape variety, the winemaking process, and the aging process. Wines made from grapes like Syrah, Grenache, and Zinfandel are known for their spicy notes.
What food pairs well with spicy wine?
Spicy wines pair well with a variety of foods. They can complement dishes that have a bit of heat, like spicy Asian or Mexican cuisine. They also pair well with rich, hearty dishes like stews and grilled meats.
What is the difference between spicy wine and sweet wine?
Spicy wine and sweet wine refer to different flavor profiles. Spicy wines have notes of spices like pepper, cinnamon, or clove, while sweet wines have a high sugar content and taste sweet to the palate.
Are spicy wines more expensive?
The price of a wine is determined by many factors and not necessarily by its flavor profile. Factors such as the reputation of the winery, the quality of the grapes, the winemaking process, and the aging process can all influence the price of a wine.
How is spicy wine made?
Spicy wine is made in the same way as other wines, but the spiciness comes from the specific grape variety used, the fermentation process, and the aging process. Certain grape varieties like Syrah and Grenache are known for their spicy characteristics, and aging in oak barrels can also contribute to a wine’s spiciness.
Where can I buy spicy wine?
Spicy wines can be found in wine stores, supermarkets, and online wine retailers. Some popular spicy wines include Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France, Grenache from Spain, and Zinfandel from California.