For more than a generation, experts have told wine lovers that green, vegetal tastes in red wines represented a serious winemaking flaw triggered mainly by the presence of pyrazines. This organic compound is found in grapes and becomes noticeable when they fail to ripen properly.
However, a new generation of sommeliers and drinkers seems to think, “Who cares?”
“Greenness is indeed increasingly accepted, I believe, as some consumers simply want to taste something different than the usual plump New World wines,” says Doug Frost, the Kansas City-based writer/entrepreneur who earned the rare distinction of both Master Sommelier (MS) and Master of Wine (MW) titles. “I recently tasted a customer on a Cabernet Franc [at my restaurant], and the table was somewhat disappointed that it didn’t show much of the floral and herbal character they had heard that the grape exhibited.”
Pyrazines are also found in other fruits and vegetables, and they produce a “green” taste that can be described as “grassy,” “bell pepper” or “cherry stems.” While this flavor may be mild in some red grapes, pyrazines are generally more concentrated in red and white Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenère and Sauvignon Blanc. For most of the last century, such taste was considered a normal characteristic of red Bordeaux wines.
But California and other New World regions began to produce wine from Bordeaux varieties with little or no green taste. Seeing the new style’s popularity, producers from the French region took greater pains to likewise pick riper grapes, aided greatly in recent years by global warming. Winemakers, critics and collectors began to deem wines with noticeable pyrazines as flawed.
Now, as Frost says, the pendulum may be swinging back slowly toward a more moderate viewpoint.
“It’s part of a natural cycle of wine preferences,” says Erik Segelbaum, a sommelier and wine consultant. “There have been previous periods in history when green, herbal tastes were accepted, and we’re coming into that period again. It is part of why Cabernet Franc is so popular in wine bars today.”
“I think that it’s embedded in a move [toward] earlier picking, preserving natural acidity and keeping alcohols in check,” says Evan Goldstein, a Master Sommelier and president/chief education officer of Full Circle Wine Solutions in San Mateo, California. “What is ‘natural’ in the Old World and cooler climates, and accepted there as more the norm, is now being more aptly considered in the style equation.”
Some winemakers and consumers have moved away from wines with overripe, extracted flavors that are also high in alcohol. Wine lovers are also more familiar with natural, organic and biodynamic wines that emphasize layers of flavors beyond simple fruitiness. The huge popularity of some white wines high in pyrazines, like Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, may have conditioned palates to accept greenness in red wines.
“I’ve noticed it more with young winemakers all over France and the West Coast,” says Jamie McLennan, partner/wine director at Café Marie-Jeanne in Chicago. “Stylistically, they want to keep the pH low and are harvesting earlier…bright and fresh fruit with a little vegetal flavor can give a wine layers.”
“Overall, I see pyrazines as one of the aromatic elements you should find. . .along with other aromatics, all in balance,” says Christian Sepulveda, winemaker at J. Bouchon in Chile’s Maule Valley. “If the pyrazines are too high, the wine is unbalanced, and it may be perceived as a fault. The intensity of greenness can be caused by many factors, including where the grape is planted, [like] a terroir that is too cool and the grape cannot mature, from harvesting too early, high yield or poor management of the canopy.”
But properly grown and harvested, “the grapes will never overripen and lose their varietal expression of greenness, nor have it be dominant and perceived as a fault,” says Sepulveda. “I think the best integration of pyrazines is when a little bit of this greenness is present with more of a spicy character, like black pepper.”
Brahm Callahan, a Master Sommelier and beverage director at Grill 23 & Bar in Boston, welcomes the emergence of limited green flavors in his wines. “But it depends on the vintage,” he says. Callahan says that an overdose of pyrazines in a warm vintage is no excuse for poor winemaking.
But not everyone is ready to jump on the “green” bandwagon.
“Many, if not most, traditional wine consumers will react against a red wine that is only tart and herbal,” says Frost. “They expect intensity of fruit and at least some richness of palate.”
Goldstein says that there’s green, and then there is really green.
“Over time, what has changed [in winemaking] is separating out the unripe and green, such as minimally lignified stems, seeds and so on, while bringing out the herbal components,” he says. “Herbal versus herbaceous is quite different, with the former being unpleasant and the latter adding complexity.”
There seems to be growing agreement among wine professionals that green is the new red. Many consumers enjoy this change, as long as it doesn’t become the dominant part of the flavor blend.