What does Make Peppery Wines, "Peppery"?

Peppery wines are found in cool-climate regions and are typical of certain grape varieties. Discover what makes their flavor so special.

Peppery wines exhibit a spicy flavor reminiscent of black pepper but without the pungency of pepper. Although perceiving pepper in red wine might be unexpected, it is a characteristic of many cool-climate red wines.

Gamay wines from Beaujolais or Ontario and Syrah wines from Côtes du Rhône usually have this typical black pepper note, well blended with other aromas. Certain Australian Shiraz wines also have this peppery note in their profiles.

What is the origin of the black pepper aroma in peppery wine?

I read a review by a French group of researchers, which compiled all the current knowledge on peppery wines [1]. Here are the key points that I summarize for you.

In 2008, after eight years of investigation, researchers in Australia finally identified the one aroma compound that makes wines peppery.

The chemical name is quite complex:

[(3S, 5R, 8S) -5-isopropenyl- 3,8-dimethyl-3,4,5,6,7,8-hexahydro-1 (2H) -azulenone]. 

It belongs to the family of sesquiterpenes; however, the common name, Rotundone, is what you want to remember.

the image shows the chemical structure of rotundone, the peppery aroma in wine.

Eight Facts about Rotundone, the Aroma Compound of Peppery Wines.

This complex aroma compound has many exciting facets.

1- Interestingly, Rotundone was unknown until significant improvement in flavor chemistry methodologies and validation with a trained sensory panel made it possible.

Until the discovery of Rotundone, scientists thought a combination of several aroma compounds was necessary to produce the peppery aroma in wine.

2- Rotundone is not specific to grape varieties. Researchers have found it in Asian nutgrass and aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and basil.

3- It takes only a few ng per liter to detect Rotundone: 8 ng/l in water (0.000000008g/L) and 16 ng/L in red wine, specifically.

4- According to the French review, 25% to 35% of people do not perceive Rotundone at a high level in a water solution. In other words, about 1/3 of wine drinkers may not experience peppery wines and are anosmic to the compound Rotundone.

5- Most consumers don’t mind tasting a black pepper aroma in a glass of wine. However, the research found that wine connoisseurs tend to enjoy peppery wines more than consumers less knowledgeable about wine. 

What about you?

6- Rotundone production occurs in the grape skins and accumulates quickly during the last few weeks before grape maturity. However, grape stems and leaves also express this compound.

7- Cool temperatures and a wet growing season create the conditions for high Rotundone concentration.

8- Hot temperatures, however, negatively affect the production of Rotundone.
Climate change and global temperature increase are concerning for wineries if they want to produce consistently peppery wine styles, vintage after vintage.

What does a peppery aroma tell about the wine quality?

The same French researchers published a new study in February 2024 [2]. They wanted to find out how wine professionals perceived wine quality when a peppery aroma was present.

  • They interviewed professionals from two different wine regions, the North Rhone Valley (NRV) and Languedoc Roussillon (LR).
  • They verified that these participants could detect rotundone (see point #4 above).

What’s the verdict?

Both groups considered the peppery wine aroma as a positive attribute. But there were a few differences.

  • Professionals from the NRV associated the peppery aroma with wines made from under-ripe grapes and considered the note acceptable at a moderate level.
  • For the LR professionals, the peppery aroma was found in powerful, full-bodied wines from ripe grapes produced in the South of France.

Some disagreement regarding the grape maturity at harvest.

While the professionals reacted to the same concept of black pepper aroma, they interpreted it differently. This disagreement may affect how these professionals would judge the quality of wines of the different regions.

What about alcohol content?

It would be expected that people associate several sensations with black pepper. This spice delivers both an aroma and a mouthfeel. 

So, I suspect that the full-bodied wines have a higher alcohol content, e.g. 14.0% alcohol.
The LR wine experts may also associate the burning mouthfeel from the alcohol with the black pepper pungency. 

However, rotundone is an aromatic compound that only evokes an olfactory sensation.

The burning alcohol sensation might be the source of misinterpretation of what the quality of peppery wines is about.

Learn to Identify Black Pepper in Red Wine

Prepare a black pepper aroma reference.

Drop several peppercorns or a tsp of grounded black pepper in a glass of red wine; let macerate for 15 minutes. Filter and smell the glass of red wine. The black pepper aroma should be distinct compared to the wine without pepper.

You may taste it, too; however, remember to distinguish the aroma from the pungent/burning sensation in the mouth.

Originally published in 2021 and revised in February 2024. 


[1] Geffroy O., Kleiber D., & Jacques A. (2020). May peppery wines be the spice of life? A review of research on the ‘pepper’ aroma and the sesquiterpenoid rotundone. OENO One, 54(2), 245-262.

[2] Geffroy, O., Siebert, T., Guyot, E., Gazagnadou, F., Henon, A., Baerenzung dit Baron, T., … Sáenz-Navajas, M. P. (2024). How do Syrah winemakers from two different French regions conceptualise peppery wines? . OENO One, 58(1). https://doi.org/10.20870/oeno-...

Categories: wine aroma

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