In New Mexico, St. Clair Winery takes fire-roasted Hatch green chiles, cold-soaks them in white wine, and produces a wine that’s semi-sweet, slightly spicy and quite smooth, especially when served chilled.
A chile pepper in wine? That is perhaps the most extreme example of vinous spiciness. Other spice impressions are far more subtle, lending nuance and complexity to a wine, rather than a dominant flavor.
Spice — defined as a dried seed, fruit, root, bark or vegetable substance — usually is used to enhance the flavor of food, to elevate the color of a dish, or, in some cases, to mask other flavors. In a wine, it can add another aroma and/or flavor element to complement the natural fruit flavors.
“Spiciness” in wine does not imply that a burning sensation has been created, nor that a specific spice has been added to the cuvee. Rather, the spiciness occurs either naturally, via the flavors of the grapes, or through human involvement, via the type of oak barrels selected for aging.
In some cases, a specific spice comes to mind when one smells and/or tastes a specific wine. Examples include anise in Sangiovese, pepper and clove in Syrah, white pepper in Grenache and Gruner Veltliner, basil and tarragon in the wines of Provence and Italy, cinnamon in Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewurztraminer, and mint in New World reds (particularly Napa Valley Cabernet).
An impression of fennel is found in many red and white wines, and clove can often be detected in wines aged in well-toasted barrels.
Oak is used like a “seasoning” by vintners who wish to add flavor and palate appeal to a wine, or perhaps “fill in” a flavor or aroma “hole.”
On the nose, the primary influence of oak is to underscore aromas that center on the spice rack — clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.
In many cases, however, a distinct aroma or flavor won’t jump out of the glass, even though there’s a definite impression of spiciness. That’s when the catch-all descriptor — spicy — typically is used.
Whether occurring naturally in the wine or imparted by oak barrel aging — or even by adding a green chile pepper to the cuvee — spice is another factor that makes drinking wine so enjoyable and so interesting.