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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I was told Cabernet has a spice to it—is that correct?
Jillina P., Smithtown, N.Y.
Cabernet Sauvignons can absolutely taste spicy, but if you’re asking if Cabernet Sauvignon is typically infused with spice, no. All those crazy descriptors wine lovers use are a result of both the unique molecular composition of wine, where certain flavor compounds seem familiar because they also appear in other aromas and tastes (malic acid, for example, causes the pleasant tartness shared by both crisp Chardonnays and green apples), and simply the way language is used to describe the way things taste and smell.
While some wines grapes are known for being spicy (like Syrah and Grenache), when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, I think the spice notes would come primarily from the wine's exposure to oak barrels. Barrels can impart notes of spice, sometimes combined with details of cigar box, coffee, chocolate or toast. Sometimes the spice accent reminds me of baking spices, sometimes it’s more like a smoky cumin or paprika note. And while I might get a touch of chile pepper in a Cabernet, wine isn’t spicy the same way biting into a habanero pepper is.
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