I am writing to you fresh from the famous Unified Wine Symposium held in Sacramento CA with more than a few bees in my bonnet! Although I can write about quite a few of them with plenty of fervor, I really want to discuss something that bothers me; the California wine industry’s push to define quality wines as those that are high in alcohol, very high in tannin, overtly jammy and, alas, low in pyrazines.
I have dealt with the other topics in one way or another in this blog, but the pyrazine issue disturbs me in particular, especially when dealing with Bordeaux’s. Pyrazines (IBMP) are the compounds in wine that give the wine a vegetative flavor; often expressed as green pepper, but sometimes as olive, dried sage, dried oregano, other dried herbs. Now I am not fond of green pepper smells in wine myself, but I love a jalapeño jelly smell in a Cabernet, and olive on a Merlot. The dried veggie qualities of a Cabernet Franc make the grape distinctive and lend a wonderful complexity to a rose. Pyrazines (IPMP) also account for the grassy and asparagus smells in a Sauvignon Blanc that can be lovely, as well as the renown cat urine odor I tend to dislike in a Sauv Blanc.
For the most part, pyrazines are a product of the vineyard, not in wine making. They make up a phenolic that the vine produces during the early stages of berry set on the vine. They are accumulated in excess due to over watering, a bushy canopy (too many leaves) and grape cluster shading during the first 50 days of berry set. A good vineyard manager can mitigate excessive pyrazines by clearing the fruit zone of leaves, keeping the canopy in good order and restrictive irrigation during berry set. These cultural practices in the vineyard may keep excessive pyrazines out of fruit, something that I believe is a very good idea for the most part. However, pyrazines define so many varietals and give them their character, and the alternatives to taming the naturally occurring pyrazines in a varietal that is intrinsic to it’s typicity fosters a gamut of undesirable behavior in wine making.
How do wine makers get rid of Pyrazines?
A cool, cloudy and wet early season can nullify even the best vineyard practices when mitigating pyrazines in fruit. After veraison, the pyrazines accumulated during berry set are diluted during ripening, and thus, the lower the amount of pyrazines accumulated, the more dilute the pyrazines are at harvest. This does not mean that a late harvest will eliminate pyrazines in berries! However, very long hang times to encourage pyrazine masking in Cabernet Sauvignon is exactly what is being practiced routinely. Long hang times increases pH in fruit, decreases acids and gives the phenolics a cooked and jammy fruit quality. Of course, the pyrazines don’t go away. They are simply masked by the muscle of an over hung, very high alcohol and usually over oaked wine.
Long hang times are the best weapon wine makers have to mitigate pyrazines in fruit along with excessive oaking and even leaving residual sugars in red wines as well as extracting giant volumes of tannins. Experiments in hot fermentations and micro oxygenation during ferments has led to heat extractions of other phenolics that lends to a not so subtle volume of tannin, and very little complexity. This “more is better” concept in wine making is a primary driver in the wine market, and we all familiar with the kinds of wines that leave our palates deadened after a few sips.
Huge alcohol, huge astringency, lots of oak, and giant jamminess is not my idea of an excellent Bordeaux.
Why do we hate Pyrazines?
So, I posit the obvious questions to these wine makers; why are you making Bordeaux’s?
My favorite qualities of Bordeaux varietals are their subtle nuances in complimentary pyrazine expression. For example, a Cab can come off with a large berry aroma in the front of the wine and then disappear while the round and lovely green olive flavors of a Merlot jump in and fill up that mid palate hole of the Cab. Dried tobacco notes of the Cab can augment the large jaminess of Malbec and give it a complexity it hardly ever produces on it’s own. The greenness of a Cab Franc can lend a lovely dried saginess to the entire structure of a wine providing a gorgeous phenolic backbone independent of tannin and acid.
The caveat for producing balanced wine blends? I cannot harvest late to have good pyraxine expression. I like to work with growers and harvest when the varietal character is best expressed. The sweet point of harvesting requires a finesse and understanding of phenolics in balance with each other and in relationship to pH, acid, sugars and pyrazines.
My point is that Bordeaux’s have pyrazines. While I do think that the presence of pyrazines ought to be mitigated to a degree, and vineyard practices need to be concerned with heat and light management on Bordeaux’s, I don’t think we need to work against the varietal character of Bordeaux’s.
And by embracing the vegetable characters of Bordeaux’s we can produce balanced wines that don’t fry our mouths like a bad whiskey and allow us to actual taste the second glass! So while you may dislike bell pepper in your wine as much as I do, you may find the tapestry of a large array of other vegetable characters deeply appealing and intriguing. If not, try a lovely Italian varietal.