If you’ve been wondering why youthful wines from certain grapes taste really fruit-driven and others have a lot of savory flavors, the answer may be methoxypyrazine. A group of these rich flavors which also includes “bell pepper”come from a specific aroma compound called methoxypyrazine or also called “pyrazines” for short. The compound is found in higher proportions in the “Bordeaux-family” grapes:
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
The varieties that contain higher levels of pyrazines all originate around Bordeaux and are genetically related. For example, did you know that Carbernet Franc is the parent grape of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère? Crazy right?
But here’s where it starts to get intriguing, these wines don’t always smell green. For many years, winemakers and viticulturists (grape growers) were trying to discover why, until scientific research revealed a few mechanisms that generate the green smells in these specific grapes. Researchers found the presence of pyrazine can be reduced or altered with more attentive vineyard management. By controlling the leafy part of the vines, growers can tweak what sort of aromas the vines generate in their grapes. In other words, pruning has a big role in how these wines develop flavors.
But don’t see this as a negative. pyrazine can smell like old asparagus water or mushy, steamed green pepper. But on the good side, pyrazines can produce charming, complex flavors that add the signature identity to these grapes. For example, Sauvignon Blanc when done right offers a fresh herbaceous quality of chocolate mint, tarragon, fresh parsley or sweet basil. If you’re looking for Sauvignon Blanc in this style, the great producers of the eastern Loire Valley are masters of this style.
For Cabernet Sauvignon and the other red Bordeaux varieties, have positive attributes associated with pyrazine such as fire-roasted red pepper paste, green peppercorn, green olive tapenade, and mint. As well as different red Bordeaux varieties have genetically higher and lower concentrations of pyrazines. Carménère and Cabernet Franc have the highest, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec has the lowest. The levels differ based on climate. Also cooler, wetter regions wil always have higher levels of pyrazine.
Though even in the wet, cold, growing season where it is already a difficult place to grow wine grapes, it is possible to remove these flavours. Gavin Sacks and Larry Perrine at Cornell University have conducted a study of pyrazine. They discovered that by removing the leaves as early as possible allows vineyard owners like to control the concentration of pyrazines more precisely than ever before.
So don’t be worried, it is possible to drink a Cabernet Sauvignon without having the taste of bell pepper. That is, if you aren’t keen on it.