Home > Winedr Blog > Loire Misunderstood #1: Herbaceousness

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

11 Responses to “Loire Misunderstood #1: Herbaceousness”

  1. There’s been some other fascinating research done on methoxypyrazines. Several studies show that leaf pulling effectively reduces MPs in grapes only if done near bloom; pull at veraison and it has no effect.

    And one study in particular done at Cornell University is particularly fascinating: it shows that excessive shoot vigor will also promote high MP levels regardless of how and when you pull leaves, and that excessive midsummer moisture promotes that excessive shoot vigor at just the wrong time (i.e. when MP accumulation really starts ratcheting up). And yet, if leaves have been pulled at the right time, you can bring the MP levels down just in time for harvest.

    http://grapesandwine.cals.cornell.edu/appellation-cornell/upload/research-focus-issue-1.pdf

    So it seems to me that “green” flavors do not necessarily indicate underripeness — cabernet franc can be perfectly ripe otherwise despite MP levels — but rather can often indicate that shoots were overvigorous and/or that clusters received inadequate light in early summer.

  2. Thanks that’s a great response.

    You’re right to point out that methoxypyrazine levels can go up as well as down. This has been seen to occur after rainfall sufficient to spur the vines into new growth (hence the reference to “late rain promoting vine growth” being important). It’s the Cornell work we are both talking about.

    I’m not convinced that is enough to allow us to tease out methoxypyrazines and separate them from ripeness though.

    Ripeness once referred purely to sugar ripeness, assessed by taste or specific gravity. Then there grew an awareness of anthocyanins, in other words tannin ripeness. Now these are recognised as being important markers of ripeness, having a significant effect on the character and quality of the finished wine.

    On the same basis, methoxypyrazines should be included as ripeness markers as well. That the levels can fluctuate with rain doesn’t detract from their importance. In fact sugar levels can also go down as well as up – rain that swells the fruit sufficiently will dilute the juice, lowering the alcoholic potential (this happened in Anjou in the 2012 harvest). That woudn’t induce us to say sugar concentration and ripeness were not closely related though.

  3. Chris, I do not disagree so strongly with the statement above, after all the Loire is quite a few km north of Bordeaux and it is normal that the same variety in a cooler climate is less ripe, all other things equal? so it is more common to find herbaceousness (but also less alcohol and lighter body) in cab franc from the Loire than say Pomerol or Bolgheri – at least in my limited experience.

  4. With a more northerly climate it is reasonable to expect more herbaceous greener characters Luca. That seems undeniable, all other things being equal.

    What I take issue with is the seeking out of unripe reds as being a typical, desirable, normal style in the Loire. It isn’t. It’s something to be battled by quality-minded growers in my opinion, as the Loire is more interesting and the wines more nuanced than being merely more green and leafy versions of what Bordeaux might offer.

  5. Hi Chris

    You’re starting to understand why Phil and I sometimes get so hugely frustrated. Living and working here, we spend a lot of time encouraging growers (Noblaie, Couly-Dutheil and Charles Joguet are other examples here in Chinon) to pick later, using better vineyard management techniques to keep the grapes healthy longer so they can ripen fully – and we still bump up against an ingrained prejudice, a hangover from the days when Loire reds really were lean and green.

    If you can get that to evolve, fantastic!

  6. I take issue with you and Charles on the total undesirability of green or herbaceous aromas. I find that the lively edge that these give, when in moderation, is one of the distinguishing features of claret and Loire Cab Franc. Its total absence which is common in New World Cab and “modern” Rolland influenced Bordeaux makes much duller wines for my palate.

    I find that lively edge in the wines of most of those producers which you mention though sometimes Amirault is a bit too ripe for me.

    I’m not scientific enough to diagnose the presence or absence of methoxypyrazines so maybe we are talking at cross purposes.

  7. Hi Tim. Thanks for stopping by!

    I don’t think we are at cross purposes at all, and I don’t think it matters whether we are 100% certain whether the aroma of greenness is methoxypyrazine. In the Cabernets and Sauvignon Blanc it probably is, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is the taste and our interpretation of a wine. Sometimes the wine world can get too bogged down in trying to directly relate the sensations we experience when we drink wine with the wine’s chemistry – as we can see in the currect debate on “minerality” in wine, as some writers tie themselves up in knots trying to grasp whether that really means there are “minerals” in wine.

    With that put to one side, the issue of greenness in Loire Cabernet Franc becomes one of personal taste and we probably need to agree to differ. I think the wines of the Loire can have a fantastic, lifted, defined, crunchy freshness without showing the green streak of Cabernet Franc. That doesn’t mean I abhor wines with a green streak, and I don’t mind it provided it is not a dominant flavour – a Philippe Alliet 2009 Chinon I tasted recently had an unexpected streak of green, very surprising considering the Alliet style and the vintage. I enjoyed the wine.

    Nevertheless you have my position correct I think. Whereas I don’t mind the odd bit of green, I don’t feel it is a style the Loire should be aiming for, as I believe as per my paragraph above that the style can be fresh, with a “lively edge” as you put it, without greenness. This should be especially true in the more entry-level cuvées, and is in fact exactly the style these wines should demonstrate. The more serious cuvées, from up on the limestone slope above Cravant les Coteaux, are the wines for the cellar. I think these will probably age better if they start with ripe fruit. Young green wines generally turn into old, green wines, and I’m not keen on old green wines.

    Over-ripeness is not something I find in the Loire, so clearly our palates differ in this. I sometimes find darker, over-extracted and over-oaked wines, but not real flavours that suggest over-ripeness like we get in St Emilion. Amirault is usually spot on for me although I haven’t tasted any so far this year.

  8. Chris, thanks for that interesting reply.

    The reason why I wonder whether we are partly talking at cross purposes is that we both seem greatly to admire the wines of B. Baudry where I find an abundance of lively edge usually tinged with a hint of noble green. For young drinking, I find Les Granges 2010 and 2011, to a slightly less extent, to be real delights.

    As for old green wines, I note that Charles Sydney cites Joguet as an estate needing a ripeness cure. Some of my most sublime red Loire experiences were Dioterie and Chêne from mid-80s to 90 vintages at around the 20 year mark. I somehow think that you would have loved them too.

    As for Amirault, I have loved many of his wines but not always those which he professes to like best himself, as he admits to waging war again both green traces and hints of brett, both of which I like in moderation. He also does not recommend long ageing for his wines.

    I think that we agree about over-ripe St.Émilion. I have recently read an article about a famous consultant (is it Dubourdieu?) who has discovered that some of the modern icons from ripe vintages are ageing very fast. I am not at all surprised, although some hoped that with age they would converge in taste with more traditionally made wines.

  9. Yes, Baudry does it for me. On the whole I find his wines just where I want them, correct, not green, translating terroir (the gravel cuvées are very different to the limestone cuvées) very nicely. The 2011s are certainly greener, and I’m less keen here, although I haven’t tasted all the cuvées from this vintage, so this might apply to only some of his wines in 2011.

    Joguet is a difficult one, as for some the domaine gave them greatest Loire taste experiences they ever had, I’m told. But the domaine has in the past two decades been at the top of its game, then at rock bottom, then close to the top again. And there is a Brett issue in some recent vintages. So what sort of experience you have depends very much on which wine you get (your experiences in the late 1980s correspond with the goodtimes, obviously). I was distinctly underwhelmed by some wines prior to FX Barc taking over the winemaking circa 2002/2003 if I recall correctly (he has since departed as I’m sure you know).

    I haven’t seen the Dubourdieu article. Do please point me in its direction if it comes your way again.

    And thanks again for stopping by. My next Loire Misunderstood post will probably look to Muscadet, as I’ve just returned from two days in the region. The most instructive part of trip was watching some fellow journalists, who all confessed to not knowing the Loire/Muscadet at all, struggle with a round hole (their preconceptions of Muscadet) and a square peg (what we tasted).

  10. Chris,

    Re St. Émilion:

    Decanter website gives this abstract of Denis Dubourdieu’s views.

    http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers?utm_source=feedly

    I have also found what looks like a slide presentation which seems much more scientific. It is well above my head, but is probably understandable by you.

    http://www.projet-vinaromas.eu/fileadmin/users/vinaromas/accueil/valerie-lavigne.pdf

    Denis’ brother, Franck, has published in his Newsletter a loud blast against the new St.Émilion classification. One of his main criticisms is that promotion seems to depend on estates’ opting for the super-ripe “modern” style. Ch. Figeac’s recent decision to go that way seems to confirm that observation.

  11. Thanks Tim, I will check out those links.

    Yes I read Franck’s thoughts; although I am sure his tastes are valid, and I’m sure he is correct in terms of styles and the classification, I didn’t think he had a very strong case against the classification per se. The challenge brought by Pierre Carle probably has some legs though; we shall see.