Holiday cookies, pies and fruitcakes. Yes, they all have sugar in common, but they share another trait: the piquant fragrance of baking spice. Curiously, baking spice has become a common descriptor for red wines and some whites. What do wine professionals mean when they use it?
Baking spices usually refer to a collection of aromatic seeds, bark and roots evocative of fall and winter holidays. Christmas pudding, a traditional dish in Britain, epitomizes this collaboration. The dark, sticky, sponge-like dessert soaks up the pungent variations of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom or allspice.
Jason Wagner, the former wine director for New York City’s Union Square Cafe and host of virtual tastings for Great Heights Wine Co., often refers to this pseudo-seasonal aromatherapy as Christmas spice.
“In trainings, I would use the term ‘Christmas spices’ and then immediately follow that with ‘ginger, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, coriander…’ to establish what I meant by that term,” he says.
Wagner acknowledges the phrasing can be problematic, given that not everyone celebrates Christmas, including himself growing up.
“However, I think everyone in America has probably come across that kind of smell in a retail store or coffee shop during that time of year,” he says.
How does a wine come to smell like warm gingerbread and winter spice lattes? It’s because red wine is most often has contact with wood when it’s aged.
Chris Struck, New York City sommelier and virtual tasting host with The Supper Share and Ink & Root, uses the term “for better or worse” when he describes wines aged in new oak.
“French oak often brings more savory spice notes, and American oak brings sweeter notes, a.k.a. baking spice,” he says. American oak also imparts more vanilla and coconut aromas.
The size of the barrel and the intensity of its toast level influence the amount of spice that a wine absorbs. Aficionados of brown spirits know the effect, especially those who favor Bourbon, which ages in new, heavily charred barrels. Staves and oak chips also lend spice, since the aromatic compound eugenol is found in both cloves and oak.
Certain red grapes have a propensity to show baking spice as part of their aromatic profile. “Producers of ripe Sonoma Pinot Noir come to mind,” says Struck.
Other red varieties which commonly feature notes of baking spice include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese.
Red wines can’t claim complete dominion over holiday aromas. Oak-aged whites and some white varieties can also exude a seasonal perfume. Wagner finds Christmas spice in Pinot Gris from Alsace, as well as Gewürztraminer.
“Robert Sinskey in Napa makes a late-harvest Pinot Gris that often has that spice note,” he says. “I love to have it on the Thanksgiving table because it just feels so fitting for that time of year.”