Green/herby flavours in red wines

Published by Sally on September 28, 2009

A version of this article first appeared in Wine and Spirit in 2007, since merged into Harpers Wine and Spirit.

A bit of grassiness, tomato leaf and green pepper aroma in our sauvignon blanc is good, but what about in reds, especially cabernet franc, and the progeny of these two varieties – cabernet sauvignon? What’s generally regarded as positive in sauvignon blanc, can be regarded as a fault in reds, though some argue hints of leafiness adds some characterful complexity to cool climate fruit, and indeed may even be part of a regional identity. Green, or herbaceous, flavours are usually (but not always) an issue in cooler climates: levels of these compounds drop during ripening.

There is a relationship between ripening and the amount of methoxypyrazines

The group of green flavours so far identified are the methoxypyrazines. And what Professor Denis Dubourdieu, of Bordeaux University and of such Bordeaux properties at Château Doisy-Daëne, Reynon and Floridène, doesn’t know about these things isn’t worth knowing. He said: “there is a relationship between ripening and the amount of methoxypyrazines, which are produced by the leaves, and which go into the berries. We must decrease the amount of pyrazines in red grapes, so we remove leaves [in cool climate Bordeaux] to expose grapes to sun.”

Over in Australia, Paul Hopkins, of Tasmania’s Domaine A said: “I call green flavours herbal: blackcurrant leaf, mint, bramble leaf are all cool climate cabernet sauvignon characters, but asparagus and cabbage are cold climate – too cold – green flavours.” Hopkins believes Bordeaux cabernet sauvignon should have a bit of leafy complexity to it and he said this is what they are aiming for – “an old world style with new world fruit.”

We remove the leaves to expose the fruit to the sun

In New Zealand, herby characters are in cooler vintages such as 1999, 2001 and 2003. But Geoff Wilson of the Gimblett Gravels winegrowers association suggests they’re faulty rather than characterful, saying “we’ve learnt enough to avoid green characters: we remove the leaves to expose the fruit to the sun. This thickens the skins and tricks the fruit into thinking it’s in a warmer region.”

Knowledge of pyrazines means flavours can be manipulated according to the wine profile desired. Another Aussie, Frank Mitolo, of Mitolo wines said green flavours could be achieved by “harvesting a little bit of fruit on the under-ripe side and countering that with ‘amarone’-style fruit to contrast crunchy fruit with sweet raisined fruit.” The choice, it appears, is ours.

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