Wine can be fruity, floral, and even vegetal…but can wine be spicy? Absolutely! Discover what gives some wines a kick PLUS learn how to pair them for a seriously mouthwatering experience.
Even the most novice wine drinkers are familiar with the concept of sweet and dry wines. They may also be vaguely familiar with various wine flavors—fruity, floral, balsamic, or even something a little more nuanced like savory vegetal flavors. But can wine be spicy?
Yes! Sometimes you take a sip of a vibrant red wine and your palate gets lit up with zesty compounds that sizzle your senses. While spicy wines might be a new concept, they’ve been around for quite a while. Plus, they’re some of the most fascinating wines to pair with food.
Find out what makes some wines spicy and discover how to perfectly pair them for a meal that’s delicious and lively.
What Do We Mean By Spicy?
To understand why some wines taste spicy, it helps to know a bit more about how “spice” works. Are we talking about the nose-running, body-sweating, mouth-burning effects of traditional spicy foods? Or are we referring to spices like cinnamon or nutmeg that have a gentle warming sensation? Obviously, these are two very different experiences.
First, let’s start by saying there’s a difference between “spice” and “spicy.” This may come as a shock, but “spicy” isn’t actually a flavor.
While some spicy things can feel like they’re burning your tongue, there’s no actual burning happening. That sensation is a neurological response to chemical compounds like capsaicin. If you’ve ever bitten into a chile pepper, you’ve definitely experienced this.
Capsaicin interacts with the neurotransmitters in your mouth that regulate temperature. Normally, these signal that you’ve eaten or sipped something that’s literally too hot (think piping hot soup, coffee, etc.). So, when you eat or drink something with capsaicin, these same receptors think you’re actually burning your mouth—even though you’re not!
Depending on your tolerance to spice, your body might even try to cool itself down by sweating. Tears and excess saliva are also an attempt by your body to purge the chemicals causing the “burning” sensation.
Other compounds, like alcohol and high acid foods or beverages, can cause these same reactions. This is often referred to as “piquant.”
What is Piquant?
Piquant is a flavor that’s sharp, spicy, or sour in taste. When it comes to wine, the terms spicy and piquant are often used interchangeably—and we think that’s fairly fitting.
Alcohol AND acidic beverages can both cause a mouth-burning, eye-watering response. So, if you have a wine with high acidity and perhaps one or two other “spice” ingredients, then absolutely that wine should be considered “spicy” or “piquant.” Admittedly, the only time we cry over wine is if it’s just THAT good.
On the other hand, ingredients like cinnamon and cloves are considered “spices” but they don’t necessarily impart that “piquant” flavor. This is where people tend to get confused. In the end, it all depends on the various ingredients and processes used to create a wine.
What Ingredients Create Piquant or Spicy Flavors in Wine?
Ok, so we know that alcohol can create that piquant flavor. However, unless you’re drinking non-alcoholic wine, even the sweetest of wines has alcohol. So, what sorts of additional ingredients help create a spicy wine?
Black and White Pepper
While the capsaicin we mentioned earlier doesn’t have an actual “flavor,” these ingredients definitely DO. If you’ve ever smelled a wine and thought to yourself, “Wow, this would pair beautifully with a pepper steak” then you’ve probably encountered a wine with black or white pepper!
Both of these ingredients contain a compound called Rotundone. Surprisingly, certain grapes also contain a high level of this compound in their skins. So, even if those wines don’t contain additional black or white peppercorns, they’ll still have a nice piquant sensation.
If you’re looking for a mouth-watering wine with a hint of black peppers, we highly recommend our Grand Noir. This fan-favorite is similar to a Pinot Noir in that it’s intense, medium-bodied, and has a tantalizing blend of herbs, spices, and fruit. Think black pepper, balsamic, and fresh strawberries. Yes, please!
For all those same elements with a slightly different flavor profile, try our La Cattura. The overall experience of this bottle is milder with notes of white pepper and both blackberries and red berries.
Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg, Aniseed
There’s just something about sipping on a spiced beverage during the cold winter months that warms our hearts. Okay, maybe it’s not THAT much of a mystery. Ingredients like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and aniseed are considered traditional “spice” ingredients for drinks like mulled wine—and for good reason!
Wines with these ingredients immediately make us feel warm and cozy. That’s because some of them LITERALLY raise our body temperature or influence our circulation. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Gingerbread or Ginger Cookies? Yup, definitely warming.
If you’re looking for a wine with a bit of this holiday vibe, definitely check out our Tenuta Ceppaiano. The combination of orange and aniseed is positively sublime. Plus, with an aging process that takes place over six months in French oak barrels, it has additional “spice” notes that are pretty hard to beat.
Obviously, oak barrels don’t go IN the wine. Wine is aged in oak barrels for a certain amount of time. However, during that aging process, compounds from the wooden barrels infuse the wine with specific aromas and flavors.
The French oak barrels our Tenuta Ceppaiano gets aged in? That particular type of oak often imparts flavors like dark chocolate, roasted coffee beans, and savory spices. American oak barrels, on the other hand, impart coconut, vanilla, or even caramel.
Honestly, the science of how oak barrels impart flavor is pretty fascinating. Sometimes oak barrels are “toasted” to increase certain aromatic compounds. Basically, that means they’re burned with fire or heat radiation. How cool is that?!
How to Pair Spicy Wines
For wines with a spice kick, we recommend sticking to congruent pairings. Essentially, that means you’re pairing two things with similar features. Don’t get us wrong, it’s entirely possible to make a complementary pairing with spicy wines. However, spice or piquant is one of those sensations that tend to dominate. So, if one item is spicier than the other, the flavors of your less spicy item may seem muted in comparison.
Remember earlier when we mentioned pairing wine with pepper steak? In that scenario, a wine with black pepper notes served with that particular steak dish would be a congruent pairing. The pepper notes from both items help enhance the other and create a savory, spicy experience.
Another great option is pairing smaller dishes (think appetizers or spiced desserts) with piquant wines. All Day I Dream About Food has a seriously mouthwatering Baked Brie with Cranberries and Cinnamon recipe. We’ve been eyeing this particular recipe for MONTHS and this is the perfect opportunity to try it out.
Just imagine—ooey-gooey brie, tart cranberries, and heartwarming cinnamon. Then you get to wash it down with an intense and spicy red wine like our PALO61, Toscano Rosso. Ah—perfection!
Experiment With Spicy Wines Today!
While spicy wine might not be your go-to, you should REALLY consider experimenting with these wines. They’re absolutely delicious, packed full of flavor, and seriously underrated. Let us know in the comments how you like to pair your spicy wines!
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