Zinfandel is a very popular California wine. One that can take on two very different flavor personalities.
Zinfandel that is grown in warm places usually results in grapes that get very ripe and produce big jammy “fruit bomb” flavors. High alcohol levels are usually included in these wines. But, Zinfandel that is grown in cooler climates can result in wines with lots of herbal flavors.
While Zinfandel can have a variety of herbal flavors, the primary one is usually described as “peppery.” A recent article in Wine Spectator (June 2018) featured California Zinfandels with descriptions that included “…pepper…savory cracked pepper…green peppercorn…white pepper aromas…fresh pepper aromas…cracked pepper notes…white pepper flavors…loaded with pepper…smoky pepper flavors.”
The reason for these peppery flavors in wine is a bit technical, but let’s give it a try. It has to do with physical chemical compounds. And, the compound rotundone is responsible for contributing the spice qualities similar to the experience of cracked peppercorns. Now, just to take this one step further down the technical path, rotundone is part of a larger class of aromatic terpenes called sesquiterpenes, which is the primary compound found in black or white peppercorns.
But, there is no where near the quantity of rotundone found in the skins of wine grapes than in peppercorns. They are so few that they are not perceivable in the grape off the vine (that would be a bit weird to bite into a peppery grape!). But the tiny amounts of this compound often become perceivable in the taste of wines following the process of fermentation. And, yes, there’s a lot of chemistry going on there too.
Now, this peppercorn flavor from rotundone is not to be confused with bell peppers. This is also a flavor that is commonly found in wines. These are due to methoxypyrazines which are commonly occurring compounds that result in subtle vegetable or herb-like aromas and flavors, such as bell peppers, asparagus or mint. Methoxypyrazines (usually referred to as pyrazines) are found in numerous wines, including Zinfandels, when the grapes are picked slightly underripe or “green,” or when the grapes are fermented with grape stems, which are high in methoxypyrazines. So, it is not uncommon to find lighter, earlier picked or stem-fermented styles of Zinfandel that are also slightly herbal due to pyrazines.
So, bell pepper and black pepper flavor compounds are not the same but they can appear in wines for different reasons. Nonetheless, next time you get to enjoy a Zinfandel, try to determine which of the two flavor personalities it has — jammy or peppery. And, which peppery flavors you are experiencing.