AS the most complex and refined beverage in the world, wine has a magical ability to exhibit an amazing array of aromas and flavors.
One pleasantly tantalizing expression found in some wines is spices. Certain grapes have a genetic predisposition to offer aromas and flavors of spice while the winemaking process, particularly aging in oak, may also impart qualities of spices. But what actually is a spice?
Spices can be a seed, fruit or bark of a plant and are usually dried. We use spices to add flavor to our food, and because they often have antimicrobial properties they also act as preservatives. This helps explain why spices are popular with cultures situated in warm climates.
Recent science indicates that spices have been part of the human diet for more than 50,000 years. In the ancient world, spices were often used as a currency and important spice-trading routes over land and sea connected the great cultures of the East and West. Cloves became one of the most important spices during the Roman Empire and were added to meats, bread and even wines.
In Medieval Europe, spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and ginger were some of the most expensive and sort-after luxury items.
Today we need look no further than our local supermarket to procure these precious food additives. In fact, the role of spices in our epicurean lives is quite similar to that of wine. How can we most pleasurably connect the two worlds?
Should you desire a red wine with a special character, I suggest trying a spicy red. There are several red wines that offer fragrances and flavors of popular spices.
One popular spicy red variety is Syrah. When enjoying a good Northern Rhone Syrah, one classic attribute we look for in the wine is black pepper. Both the nose and taste of the wine commonly include stimulating essences of freshly crushed black pepper.
Syrah wines from the Hawke's Bay region of New Zealand also tend to exhibit desirable black pepper qualities. This is not by accident as winemakers in Hawke's Bay have a made a concerted effort to craft their wines according to the Northern Rhone style, rather than the more weighty and ripe Australian Shiraz style.
Spicy red wines are among the most textured of all red wines with mouthfeels ranging from velvety, grainy to fleshy. The Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan grape varieties of Southern France and Spain are excellent examples and tend to work well together in a blend.
When properly made, they contribute intriguing spicy fruit notes with textured tannins and are an exciting contrast in style to mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot reds. In some of these blends you may also find stimulating notes of white pepper.
Italy also offers some deliciously spicy red wines. In the northwest region of Piedmont that borders France, the popular Dolcetto and Barbera varieties make fresh and spicy wines with distinctive characters.
Spices you may find in these wines include spiced berries, black and white pepper and occasionally even cinnamon. The combination of good acidity and spicy qualities make these Italian wines exceedingly food-friendly, pairing well with everything from cooked seafood dishes and meats to a range of spicy dishes. Chianti Classico red wines made from the Sangiovese grape that are aged in oak typically have pleasing spicy qualities along with nuances of tobacco.
In the New World, two wines that can be distinctly spicy are Pinotage from South Africa and Malbec from Argentina. Both wines sometimes impart pleasurable qualities of spiced dark berries and soft and spicy palate-coating tannins.
Most spicy reds tend to be generous in fruit and have relatively high alcohol content, so I suggest serving them slightly chilled or about 15-16 degrees Celsius. This will mitigate sensations of alcohol and help distinguish their pleasant fruity-spicy qualities.
Not all spicy wines are red. Two white varietals that are known for making spicy wines are Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
These are two of the most fun and sexy white grapes as they make seductively fragrant wines with generous fruit and exotic spice sensations. Some of the best examples of these wines come from Alsace in eastern France. French Pinot Gris wines in particular can offer spicy fruit qualities on both the nose and palate.
Good examples of Gewurztraminer wines from Alsace and neighboring areas of Germany are renowned for offering tantalizing spicy red rose sensations along with discernible notes of nutmeg and white pepper. The intense aromatics and flavor qualities of both these spicy whites also make them two ideal partners for many well-spiced Asian dishes.
I last experienced a mulled wine on a Christmas Eve several years ago at a Danish friend's home in Taipei. Though an interesting experience, I can't really say that I'm a fan. I am very much a proponent of the purity of aromas and flavors in wines and tend to frown on additives of any kind.
Mulled wine is usually made by adding spices to red wine. It is particularly popular in the colder climates of northern Europe. The Romans were great fans of mulled wines, adding cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon to their rather harsh wines.
The spices not only contributed additional flavors to hide the flaws of the wine but also acted as preservatives as the wines traveled the vast reaches of the Roman Empire. Today mulled wines like Gluhwien in Germany, Glogg in Nordic countries and Bisschopswijn in Holland remain popular drinks especially during the Christmas holiday season.