Last week I talked a little bit about Syrah and Shiraz, and the wonderful spice notes that come along with wines of their nature. But, even though people love to drink Syrah and Shiraz, and while the presence of spice is second nature to us within gastronomic realms, I consistently watch drinkers have an acute aversion to the idea of herbs and spices in wine.
They love how the wine tastes—but the mere suggestion that those wonderful aromas are spice-oriented feels perverse.
But why? The coupling of food and spice should come as no great surprise. In fact, we seem to expect that flavorful food must involve some generous dash of spice. Proof? Pepper pervades everything: eggs, goat cheese salads, curries, or even grilled sockeye salmon see us all mindlessly (yet intuitively) spiking our food with the treasured spice. Pepper has earned a permanent spot on our table.
So, why do we flinch at the suggestion of pepper and spice nuances in wine? I suspect that the answer is two-fold:
1.) Wine is made from grapes, and grapes are a fruit. A mention of black cherries, plums or lemon pulp in a wine description and we don’t flinch—fruit aromas and flavors, borne from a fruity source, make a lot of sense. Aromas or flavors outside of the fruity realm feel innately out of sync.
2.) Wine aromas and flavors can be classified as primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary aromas are usually tied to the overwhelmingly fruity components, while secondary aromas are those often related to the way that the wine was made (type of oak, yeast strains, etc). Tertiary aromas are related to terroir (the essence of the place that the grapes were grown) and to complexities that arise as the wine ages in the bottle. These potential tertiary aromas are numerous, ranging from mold to gasoline to wet stones, to wet dog to ‘barnyard’ to, you guessed it—spices. Spice nuances in wine develop via similar processes to rotting mushrooms or burning rubber nuances. Within this collective tertiary aroma/flavor group, it’s no wonder that spices often get confined to a genre that seems off-putting.
—Jayce McQuerter, CSW, CS