Saturday, December 6, 2008

It Ain't Easy Being Green

Next to pimpin', the least easy thing is being green. This is especially true for wine. Wines that smell or taste vegetal are largely unloved. A recent email from one of the local wine shops pretty much sums it up:

"We just finished tasting some truly regrettable South American reds that we guarantee will never appear on our shelves: they smelled like weed-whacking day at the La Brea Tar Pits. Pyrazines (compounds in grapes that impart greenish characteristics) were the apparent culprits. Bordeaux varietal grapes from Chile are frequently afflicted by these vegetal-tasting beasties."

Here's where it gets interesting, though. Pyrazines (or more specifically methoxypyrazines like 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine) become less prevalent in grapes as they ripen. In California, where grapes can be harvested late in the fall because growers don't have to be concerned with rain diluting the fruit, wines typically have almost no pyrazine aromas or flavors. It's perhaps unsurprising that a California-based retailer whose newsletters praise extremely fruit-forward wines from California, Spain and Australia would find pyrazines unpleasant. The question is whether these wines were truly under-ripe or if they just were slightly "green" in stark contrast to most of what this retailer stocks.

There's obviously no way to answer this question, but it does highlight the thin line between herbaceous, vegetal wines and herbal, earthy wines. Humans are very sensitive to pyrazines, and a little bit can make a big impression. However, individuals' thresholds vary. One person may not detect any pyrazine, while another will in the same wine. One person's wine with a hint of forest floor may be another person's wine that smells like bell peppers in a vegetable garden. Just as a little Brettanomyces can add some smoke or leather to a bouquet while a lot just smells like wet band-aids or manure, a little pyrazine is a complexing agent while a lot makes a wine a one-dimensional veggie-bomb.

The Young Winos of LA have a pretty amusing take on their first experience with a Cab Franc from the Loire. In short, they found a cornucopia of bell peppers. Interestingly, in another tasting note, they describe the Hughes-Wellman 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon as initially smelling "musty, with some forest floor notes, but no fruit" and tasting "a bit unripe" despite "a finish that lasted forever." Without having tasted either of these wines, I nonetheless get the impression that the presence of pyrazines (or the lack of pure, overt fruitiness) came as a surprise to these bloggers. I don't think this is an odd reaction for most wine drinkers who are accustomed to the New World California style of wine that skews towards very phenolically ripe grapes (with the accompanying high sugar/alcohol levels).

However, I don't think this should be the case. A list of varietal characteristics for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc almost always includes green bell pepper. Cabernet Franc in particular is singled out for its herbal or sometimes overly vegetative qualities. Part of this reputation likely stems from the fact that the early-ripening Cab Franc is often grown in cooler climates where even it struggles to fully ripen before harvest. But the Cab Franc grape itself has a thinner skin than Cabernet Sauvignon, and tends more towards a medium-bodied red fruit profile than a full-bodied black fruit profile. My hypothesis is that the fruit is simply less assertive, producing very herbal aromatics even in ripe Cab Franc. For me, ripe Cab Franc is equal parts raspberry, red cherry, damp earth, tobacco leaf and herbs. But even Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot benefit from a hint of pyrazine as long as it's not dominant.

I suppose my take on pyrazines is that often the most interesting and complex wines have a hint of bell pepper that when in balance should come across as more of an herbal or leafy aroma. Wine drinkers shouldn't shy away from this component even if it comes across as a surprise at first. A little pyrazine in a Bordeaux varietal often indicates an elegant, balanced wine with good acidity and a moderate alcohol level. And if more winos gained appreciation for this flavor profile, Cabernet Franc would deservedly have a larger fan base.


Young Winos said...

Great post. I definitely learned a thing or two (until now, I'd always assumed that "pyrazines" were just the type of periodicals that weird fire-crazy teenagers subscribe to).

You're right, the Winos were a little thrown by our first foray into "green bell pepper" territory. We've since grown to appreciate a little green on our reds -- some of us, it must be admitted, much more than others.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Yeah, green can be good or bad depending on context. High alcohol is another one of those polarizing issues where context makes a big difference.

Keep up the good blogging! I love your Cameron Hughes tasting reports in particular.