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On the nose

Pepper, cinnamon and licorice—spicy wines offer drinkers many unexpected surprises.

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Australia’s Barossa Valley is the birthplace of Shiraz, the quintessential spicy wine. Photo: Matt Turner/AWBC

Australia’s Barossa Valley is the birthplace of Shiraz, the quintessential spicy wine. Photo: Matt Turner/AWBC

Pepper, cinnamon and licorice—discover the fiery world of spicy wines.

As the weather seems to get colder every day, my thoughts turn from summer’s lighter whites to spicier, zestier wines. There is something mystical about the process of transforming grape juice into something completely different and amazing. A wine that smells and tastes like it could be on a spice rack makes this transformation even more interesting.

The aromas of a spicy wine can be white or black pepper, baking spices like cinnamon or even spiced tea. They range from salt to pepper, cumin, spearmint and many more flavours. You can even perceive what tasters call “minerality” in wines as spiciness. Discovering these exotic characteristics is part of the fun.

Higher quality wines (read: more expensive) usually exhibit more subtle spicy characters, just like you would want in your meal. Red wines tend to exhibit more of the characteristics we seek in both smell and taste. The addition of oak aging can add another layer of spiciness. (Many reds are oaked.)

The most classic example of a spicy wine would be wines from the Rhone region of France. The most important red grapes of this region include Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre. Not coincidentally, these make up a great portion of the most famous wine of the region: Châteauneuf du Pape. It’s a powerhouse of spice on the nose, with aromas of licorice and black pepper, plus dark fruit flavours like black cherry and plum. It’s fantastic and splurge-worthy, but expensive. More affordable are the Syrah based wines of the region (look for Côtes du Rhône on the label).

When vintners plant Syrah in Australia, they call it Shiraz. I love the mint and cracked pepper you get from many Australian Shiraz’s, especially from the Barossa Valley. One of my favourite early wine experiences came from the discovery of how well a good Shiraz pairs with a grilled steak.

Another great spicy red to try is Zinfandel. This is the signature grape of California, and I usually describe it as briery: a combination of rich berry flavours and spice. Since Zinfandels range in price in Halifax from $14 to $50, there are many options to experiment with.

Although spicy reds can pair with spicy foods, when the alcohol is higher it can make the wine taste even hotter. Any grilled red meat with lots of pepper will pair well with the above wines.
The signature spicy white wine is Gewürztraminer. Although it is now grown all over the world (which doesn’t make it any easier to spell or pronounce), it’s most famous from the Alsace region of France and western Germany. It’s a luxurious white full of exotic smells and flavours. The classic Gewürztraminer will smell of lychee fruit, nutmeg and white pepper.

Another well known spicy white grape is Riesling. There are many versions of Riesling and some of the best ones are dry, not sweet. They possess that character called minerality—impossible to qualify, it gives them thant intangible “aha!” quality.

Both Gewürztraminer and Riesling are fantastic with spicy food. Try Gewürztraminer with Indian food and Riesling with Thai food—tasty.

One of my favourite spicy wines is actually fortified with alcohol and is called Tawny Port. The indigenous grapes of Portugal used in this delicious product are naturally spicy and the oak aging for usually 10 years or more only adds to the character. Awesome with dessert or as a digestif.

Nova Scotian wines boast some spice too. For reds try to taste the peppery characters in Leon Millot, and for white I love the spicy and clove characters in Nova Scotia Muscat.

Lots to experiment with here—share with friends and enjoy.

The Under $25 Wine Review

Primal Roots Red Blend 2010
California, $16.99, NSLC

As it looks somewhat similar to the over-popular Apothic Red, I was a little apprehensive to try this one. It’s a pleasantly surprising wine with good balance. Nice chocolaty finish. Syrah gives it a little earthiness and pepper. A little sweeter than I like, but tasty. Extra points for price. Pair with pizza topped with prosciutto. 88/100

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
2011, New Zealand, $22.99, NSLC

It’s hard to avoid this perennial best seller of the New Zealand section. It even had billboards in Halifax this summer. Hype aside, it’s a surprisingly good wine. It checks all the boxes for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: gooseberry and lime aromas, acidity that dances across the tongue and bright grapefruit flavours. If you like your wines crisp, clean and flavourful add a few bottles to your list. Pair with fresh Nova Scotia oysters on the half shell. 90/100

80–84: A great sipper, good value.
85–89: Won’t last long, great value.
90–94: Brag to your friends and buy a case—fantastic.
95–100: A classic, run to the store, extremely rare.