Why is it that maybe the most likely place you’ll find tortured English is in a wine tasting note? Is there really a bouquet of hard herbs in a Côtes du Rhone, or rose petals in Nebbiolo, or black pepper and clove in Syrah from Saint-Joseph?
The answer to both of these questions is inherently tied together. Winemakers and growers have been honing their craft since antiquity, cultivating grape varieties to highlight their unique flavors and characteristics, while learning how to best express these flavors with their winemaking. The sheer number of flavors that the two can conjure in concert almost maps the entire world of food.
Drinkers of certain French wines in the 17th century likely tasted the flavor vanilla from the French Oak barrels that the wines were aged in long before the exotic vanilla bean was ever scraped into the custard for a crème brulée. Toasted oak produces the aroma compound vanillin, which is the primary aroma compound in natural vanilla.
If you can imagine your own spice rack, going down the line from Allspice to Cardamom to Marjoram, you’ll likely be able to find a tasting note out there that highlights that flavor. And interestingly, there is a likely fundamental chemical similarity between the flavors expressed in that spice, and what you taste in a wine!
Sometimes, the same flavor can come from two unique sources too. For example, the flavor of cloves comes from an allyl called Eugenol. Eugenol is one of the common byproducts of aging in French oak. However, the flavor of cloves is also associated with a yeast strain called Brettanomyces (or Brett), in wine, mostly regarded as a spoilage yeast, but used in brewing to make rustic, farmhouse beers. Eugenol is actually produced in very small quantities when fermenting with Brett - same clove flavor, two different sources, and neither were actually cloves!
In general, oak, and particularly new oak can impart many of these tastes to a wine, and one of the reasons that oak is often called a vintner’s “spice rack.” These spices can include the aforementioned vanilla and cloves, but also aromas of smoke, spice, butterscotch, caramel, and coconut.
Of course, the actual grapes contribute to some of these spicy flavors. Syrah is famous for its peppery qualities, particularly in cooler climates like the Northern Rhone - Rotundone, a terpene found in the skins of Syrah grapes is also found in the peppercorn plant!
Would you believe The flavor of a wine can be tangibly affected by the plants the grapes are grown around? The garrigue herbs of the the Rhone and Southeastern France grow abundantly in the stony soils around the vineyards, and will often release heaps of thyme, rosemary, and sage-scented oil into the air, which falls onto the grape skins, and is eventually fermented, and pressed with the rest of the berries. This simple notion is an area of only very recent study, and has been coined “microbial terroir.”
One way to really enhance the spiced and herbal qualities of these wines is to experiment with food pairings. With wines with this peppery rotundone quality, imagine how you would season a meat before or after cooking - black pepper with red meats, the more delicate white pepper of Grüner Veltliner with chicken, fish, and vegetables.
Like goes with like, too! So, if you’re putting on a stew with some of these warming spices like clove, star anise, and nutmeg, like a classic Pork Shoulder à la Matignon with Apples, bring on the spicy wine! And remember, what grows together, goes together, so for all of those Tuscan white bean stews, embrace Sangiovese and Barbera. As always, the best way to know what you like with spicier wines is to keep tasting them, and continue to experiment!