Have you ever smelled or tasted a wine and the first thing you thought of was a vegetable? We know, we know – not exactly a description that you would expect right off the bat – or be interested in tasting for that matter. However, there are several varietals out there that are known for having vegetal qualities. In the wine world, we call these flavors and aromas pyrazines and when done the right way, they can be a beautiful addition to the profile of a wine.
So, what exactly is a pyrazine? Short for alkyl-methoxypyrazines, pyrazines are chemical compounds generally found in higher levels in the classic Bordeaux varietals- Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère and Malbec. While green peppers are the most common aromas associated with pyrazines, others that might indicate the compound’s presence are spicy or sweet herbs, plant stems, asparagus, snap pea, olive, jalapeno or even just rustic earth. On the bad side, pyrazine can smell like old asparagus water or mushy, steamed green pepper. But on the good side, pyrazines can yield 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 this sounds like the Sauvignon Blanc for you, the great producers of the eastern Loire Valley have mastered this style. For Cabernet Sauvignon and the other red Bordeaux varieties, you can expect notes of red pepper, green peppercorn, green olive tapenade and mint.
The red Bordeaux varietals have varying concentrations of pyrazines- Carménère and Cabernet Franc have the highest, followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and then Malbec with the lowest. The levels vary based on climate, and cooler regions and vintages will always have higher levels of pyrazine. The number one way to control pyrazines in wine is in the vineyard. For the most part, pyrazines are a product of the vineyard, not of the wine making. Vineyard practices that contribute to elevated pyrazine levels include 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 restricting the amount of water the vines receive early on.
Now that we’ve talked about exactly what pyrazines are, let’s talk about what’s most important – will you like it? Well, like anything else pertaining to wine, you’ll never know unless you taste it. As sommeliers, we enjoy this characteristic in a wine, but only when not overdone. As anything else in life, there is such a thing as too much. Too much oak, too much fruit; too much of anything in a wine is not ideal. The best wines are those that are balanced. Additionally, there are studies that exhibit data showing the presence of pyrazines positively affects the aging potential in a wine; cooler vintages in Bordeaux (i.e. higher levels of pyrazines) ended up tasting the best long term. Enjoying and collecting wine is a constant battle with time, so any help in that department never hurts!
At the end of the day, we can’t tell you what you’ll like or dislike in a wine, we can only present you the facts and let you take it from there. Something like pyrazines in wine don’t have to be a bad thing. Instead think of it as something different and unique, something that will be fun to explore, try and learn from!