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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What kinds of wines are typically described as “spicy”? A friend who will be visiting says she likes spicy red wines, so I want to know what grape varieties or regions to look for.
—Tina, New York
Good question, with a complicated answer. Many wines have at least a little bit of a spicy component, which refers broadly to a category that can include more specific notes like pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise, mint, ginger or cardamom.
Some grapes—and the wines made from them—are known for being spicy. The most obvious example I can think of is the peppery note that is a hallmark of Syrah or Shiraz. But oak barrels are also known for emphasizing or imparting an array of flavors, including spice notes. So if you’re drinking a spicy Syrah, you may not be able to tell if the spice is inherent in the grape, or from the influence of a barrel, or both. Other factors that can influence a wine’s spice notes include the vintage’s weather as well as fermentation and winemaking practices.
That said, the spiciest red wines I can think of are typically made from the Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Malbec or Zinfandel grapes. I find spicy reds from Spain and Italy, as well as from New World regions. If you want to see if a particular wine hits any spice notes, WineSpectator.com members can look it up in our online Wine Search database, and we also offer a mobile app.
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