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Yes, that’s really ‘black pepper’ in Aussie shiraz!

When I was researching Wednesday’s blog on the BVE E & E Black Pepper Shiraz, I came across some really interesting research about the reason for that prized peppery aroma in some of Australia’s best shiraz.

Not too long ago the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) made a break-through discovery. They identified the compound responsible for the peppery character in Australian shiraz, and it turns out to be the same molecule found in much larger concentrations in black peppercorns themselves.

The compound is called rotundone and it has been identified in minute quantities in the grapes used to make the wine. Lots of herbs and vegetables also contain rotundone, but it’s not easy to identify because it’s so potent that even the tiniest concentration can create a peppery aroma. Fortunately, because the compound is relatively stable, it doesn’t fade away as the wine ages.

Scientists are still trying to figure out what causes the grapes to naturally produce the peppery character. They believe climate plays a role, because the peppery aroma is more common in cool-climate shiraz wines.

Don’t worry about winemakers using rotundone as an additive. AWRI holds the patent for the compound, and it is only interested in helping wineries discover different ways to moderate the peppery character in their grapes. Studies are looking at pruning methods, soil types and trellising systems, for example, to see if they can influence the concentration of the compound.

Interestingly, the AWRI’s research also noted that about 20 percent of their sensory panelists couldn’t detect rotundone even at the highest concentrations tested. Apparently, almost everyone can detect and distinguish over 1,000 smells, but our sensitivity to different aromas can vary quite a lot. The observation certainly helps to explain why somes wines can spark quite divergent assessments even among the most seasoned wine critics!

Merrill Witt, Editor


For more information about rotundone, see Overlooked pepper compound spices up red wine by James Mitchell Crow, Advancing the Chemical Sciences, 13 May 2008; Part 2: The Australian Wine Research Institute 
Landmark Australia Tutorial by Jamie Goode ,Wine Anorak, June 2009;  That’s Some Spicy Shiraz, by Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator 4 June 2008



Wine and art are my two big passions and I think they complement each other really well. I love everything about wine, and especially the stories about the people who make it. Top winemakers are as fascinating as great artists! Both care passionately about what they do and want to make a difference. In my blog posts I try to give you a taste of what the best minds in the wine world are thinking and doing. View all posts by →

3 Responses to Yes, that’s really ‘black pepper’ in Aussie shiraz!

  1. mercadeo says:

    An obscure sesquiterpene, rotundone, has been identified as a hitherto unrecognized important aroma impact compound with a strong spicy, peppercorn aroma. Excellent correlations were observed between the concentration of rotundone and the mean ‘black pepper’ aroma intensity rated by sensory panels for both grape and wine samples, indicating that rotundone is a major contributor to peppery characters in Shiraz grapes and wine (and to a lesser extent in wine of other varieties). Approximately 80% of a sensory panel were very sensitive to the aroma of rotundone (aroma detection threshold levels of 16 ng/L in red wine and 8 ng/L in water). Above these concentrations, these panelists described the spiked samples as more ‘peppery’ and ‘spicy’. However, approximately 20% of panelists could not detect this compound at the highest concentration tested (4000 ng/L), even in water. Thus, the sensory experiences of two consumers enjoying the same glass of Shiraz wine might be very different. Rotundone was found in much higher amounts in other common herbs and spices, especially black and white peppercorns, where it was present at approximately 10000 times the level found in very ‘peppery’ wine. Rotundone is the first compound found in black or white peppercorns that has a distinctive peppery aroma. Rotundone has an odor activity value in pepper on the order of 50000-250000 and is, on this criterion, by far the most powerful aroma compound yet found in that most important spice.

  2. Chris says:

    Fantastic insight into the much sought after (in my world anyway!) peppery Shiraz. I, like many others I would assume, would love some advice on finding a wine with strong peppery characteristics – any advice?

    • Hi Chris, Thanks for your comment. The cool climate districts of Australia have gained a great reputation for spicy, elegant shiraz. A post I wrote on the Hilltops Region, “The Hilltops Region: Redefining Australian Shiraz!” highlighted quite a few interesting labels including Clonakilla, Eden Road, Moppity Vineyards and Chalkers Crossing. I haven’t had any luck posting links into the comments section, but if you go to the blog and type “Hilltops” in the search box, the post will come up. Regards, Merrill

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