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Black and white pepper in tasting notes: What’s the difference?

Black and white pepper can both turn up in tasting notes, but how do they differ? We explain the basics below, with expert commentary from Decanter's Rhône expert, Matt Walls.

What is the difference between black and white pepper?

Both black and white pepper come from the same peppercorn plant, but the difference in flavour comes from how they are processed.

The peppercorns are originally green in colour but black peppercorns are sun-dried, while white peppercorns have the out layer removed, either before or after drying, leaving the white seed.

‘White pepper smells more pungent than black pepper, [while] black pepper is slightly fresher and more complex,’ said Matt Walls, Decanter‘s Rhône expert and contributing editor, talking to Decanter.com in 2018.

‘The ‘peppery’ flavour found in plants comes from a naturally occurring compound called rotundone. It’s present in peppercorns, as well as some herbs, such as oregano, and also certain grapes.

White pepper contains more rotundone than black pepper.

In a feature on rotundone for Decanter magazine, Walls stated that ‘white pepper contains around 2,025,000 nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg); black pepper 1,205,000 ng/kg’.

When looking at other herbs and plants, Walls said this compared to: ‘marjoram with 208,000 ng/kg; rosemary with 86,000 ng/kg; oregano with 1,000 ng/kg; and “peppery” grapes with just 190 ng/kg.’

Black pepper in wine

‘Peppery notes in wine tend to come from particular grape varieties rather than as a product of the winemaking process,’ said Walls.

According to Decanter’s tasting notes decoded, ‘black pepper notes usually crop up in earthy or spicy dry red wines, particularly those made from Syrah / Shiraz, either single-varietal or constituting a classic blend with Mourvèdre and Grenache’.

For example, this Elephant Hill, Syrah, Hawke’s Bay 2015  has ‘distinct black pepper notes’ with a ‘lingering, gently smoky, peppery finish’.

And this Jolie Laide, Syrah, North Coast California 2016 was described as having a ‘captivating nose: smoky bacon, cigars, black pepper, juniper, cola.’

Walls said that black pepper notes can also be found in Pinot Noir, Gamay and Graciano, albeit not as commonly as in Syrah wines.

It is also ‘highly variable across vintages. Wines with high rotundone one year might show no pepperiness the following year.’

White pepper in wine

White pepper – generally a less common aroma – is a classic characteristic of Grüner Veltliner. For example, this Familie Mantler, Grüner Veltliner 2019 has ‘soft peach and a twist of white pepper’.

It can show up in other white wines, too. In the UK, Chapel Down, Flint Dry 2019 was recently described as having ‘plenty of limey acidity on the palate with crunchy green apple juice dusted with white pepper spice’.

White pepper is not just limited to white wines, however.

The Fromm Vineyard, Syrah, Marlborough 2016 has a ‘super fresh nose with notes of white pepper and pounded raspberries’, noted Walls earlier this year.

First published in 2018 and updated in April 2021. 

See also

Primary vs tertiary aromas: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between Syrah and Shiraz? 

Walls: Why Syrah is the most adaptable grape in the world

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