Loire Misunderstood #1: Herbaceousness
It was only yesterday that I came across a curious opinion on the wines of the Loire. Where I came across it, and what that opinion was isn’t important (right now, anyway) but it started me thinking about other beliefs that exist regarding these wines. Some beliefs make perfect sense, but I could also think of some that are blatantly false, or at the very least open to question. In this post, and in a series of future posts (which will no doubt be published at erratic and seemingly random intervals – in other words, whenever I get the time), I will look at some of these beliefs – or misconceptions as I have called them – with a focus on those that, essentially, wind me up the most.
In this first post, herbaceousness in reds.
In particular I am referring to Cabernet Franc in Anjou and Touraine. Clearly there are other varieties planted here (Grolleau, Gamay, Pinot Noir and others) but it is Cabernet that is foremost in my mind, mainly because this variety is the backbone of the Loire ‘heartland’, including Chinon, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, Saumur and Anjou Rouge. Cabernet Sauvignon also plays a role here of course, notably in Anjou Rouge where it produces (from the likes of Yves Guégniard and Vincent Ogereau) some magnificent wines.
I don’t mean to delve too deeply into a tangential scientific discourse, but it is worth looking quickly at the story of methoxypyrazines, a major cause of the greener aromas and flavours that can be found in Cabernet Franc (pictured above….in Bordeaux, admittedly) and Cabernet Sauvignon. If the word methoxypyrazine sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s probably because from time to time it crops up in tasting notes for Sauvignon Blanc, as early-picked grapes are still rich in methoxypyrazine when harvested and it is seen as a characteristic (and by some desirable) feature of Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Franc is another variety with a tendency to methoxypyrazine production, and so too is Cabernet Sauvignon (hardly surprising when we remember that the latter variety is the progeny of the first two).
Methoxypyrazines exist in high levels in raw vegetables (as well as ‘raw’ unripe grapes I suppose) and their presence lends a vegetal aroma which can veer away from herbaceousness into the vegetable box; green capsicum is classic, but I have sensed everything from green bean, celery and celeriac (quite common) to beetroot, courgette and aubergine (less common). All can be put down to the presence of methoxypyrazines, in particular 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine.
Methoxypyrazines are synthsised by the grapevine, and levels increase until véraison. Work by Hashizume & Samuta in 1999 demonstrated that once colour change and ripening was underway, however, levels fall rapidly, then continue to slowly decrease as harvest approaches. This occurs under the influence of light, so leaf plucking to increase exposure can help. The key point here for me, though, is that detectable levels of methoxypyrazines (in excess of 15 ng/l) indicate unripeness (although late rain promoting vine growth can also be important). Pick later, you get ripe grapes, and no herbaceous, leafy, green pepper or other vegetal aromas.
Now look at these extracts from decanter.com’s online guide to grape varieties:
On Cabernet Franc: “…[o]utside Bordeaux it’s the major red grape of the Loire, where it’s more herbaceous in style…”
On Cabernet Sauvignon: “…[i]t tends towards herbaceousness when not fully ripe with capsicum and grassy undertones…”
This approach mystifies me. For one variety in one region, a wine is regarded as under-ripe when herbaceous. For a second variety in another, it is a matter of ‘style’. As you might imagine, I disagree. I taste a lot of wines from the Loire, and those that are green (celery, green pepper or otherwise) are not expressing a Loire ‘style’, but are in my opinion demonstrating classic Cabernet signs of under-ripeness. We do not define Bordeaux, Burgundy or indeed any other famous wine region by the lesser, under-ripe wines that can be found there, made by uninterested growers or the result of wetter and weaker vintages. We do not drink English red wines, content that the greener flavours are part of the English ‘style’. Why, then, do some insist on doing the same with the Loire?
Taste the wines of a grower who seeks out quality and ripeness – Matthieu Baudry, Yannick Amirault, Antoine Sanzay, Vincent Ogereau to name but four – and you will not, on the whole, find green is a character of the wines. You will find purity, definition, clean fruit, vibrant structures, occasionally soft and welcoming textures. As delicious as any ripe Bordeaux or Burgundy, but still displaying lots of real Loire style, which reflects the terroir, not the ripeness of the fruit.
Terroir is a topic for another day though. For the moment, can we please stop judging the Loire by unripe wines made by co-operatives and bored vignerons, and peddled by those with a perhaps distorted, certainly outdated view of the wines of the Loire?
Further reading: Grape maturity and light exposure affect berry methoxypyrazine concentration, Am J Enol Vitic, 1999, 50:194-198, Hashizume K, Samuta T