Wed 17 Apr 2013
I was tasting a range of red wines yesterday, and pulled the cork on a bottle of the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County, a 100-percent varietal wine that can typically be relied upon to be solid, well-made and flavorful, not exciting, perhaps, but better than decent, like the Dad in a television show. Swirling the wine in the glass and sniffing over several minutes, I noticed some aromas that I don’t often observe in cabernet sauvignon wines, especially made in California; just hints, mind you, but intriguing touches of dill and black olive, mint and bell pepper and then, more typical of cabernet and merlot, cedar and dried thyme. “Herbaceous!” comes the response, “heaven forfend!”
For some reason, winemakers in California not only avoid any notions of herbal qualities in their cabernets and merlots — especially dill and bell pepper — they seem to absolutely loathe those elements. When I first became interested in wine and for whatever reason tasted more red wines from Bordeaux than I do now — hear that, importers? — those hints of dill, green pepper, black olive and occasionally caraway seed seemed to be an integral part of the aroma profile, especially in wines from the communes of St. Julien and St. Estephe. Perhaps the bias against an herbaceous character in cabernet sauvignon and merlot by so many winemakers in California is a reaction against the excessive levels of green pepper that dominated red wines from Monterey County in the 1980s and ’90s, the dreaded “Monterey veggies” that I well remember.
Herbaceous qualities in red wine, and particularly the green pepper component, can be traced to methoxypyrazines, particularly the compound 2-methoxy-3-isobutyl pyrazine, popularly known as IBMP. This compound is so potent that it can be detected at the level of one part per trillion. It is present in certain grapes, especially cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and semillon, but undergoes rapid loss as the grapes ripen, ergo, that green pepper character — or asparagus and green pea in sauvignon blanc and semillon — can be attributed, at least in some instances, to grapes harvested before being fully ripe, so the date of harvest is important. Another factor is cool climate conditions, which tend to produce comparatively higher levels of methoxypyrazines along the vintage’s course of ripening. Anyone for a glass of leafy, green pea New Zealand sauvignon blanc? Vineyard practices, too, are important, and perhaps some of My Readers will remember when before the light bulb of canopy management went off in the heads of winemakers in California how so many sauvignon blanc wines smelled like canned asparagus and the damp grass cuttings scraped from a lawn mower?
Anyway, the real subject is cabernet sauvignon, and the theme is that a hint of green pepper and perhaps a touch of dill and black olive enhance a wine’s bouquet and lend interesting highlights, adding to the layering of aromas. The year in Sonoma — 2010 — was cool in Spring and Summer, but with a warm September that aided ripening. Rodney Strong harvested the last of the grapes for this cabernet, from four vineyards ranging from Jimtown in the south to Cloverdale in the north, on October 28. Allow me to lift a quotation from the press material that accompanied this wine to my door: “Late rain generated a healthy canopy, but one that required careful management to avoid green flavors.” And in the description of the wine occurs the phrase “herby black currant,” which I interpret as meaning black currant aromas and flavors infused with notes of cedar, thyme, perhaps something briery in there and possibly including a hint of the dreaded bell pepper.
In other words, it seems to me that Rodney Strong’s longtime head winemaker Rick Sayre, winemaker Justin Seidenfeld and director of winegrowing — a strange word — Doug McIlroy are aware of and concerned about the problems that methoxypyrazines can cause but are willing to allow at least a modicum of the herbaceous element into the wine for its intriguing contribution to the network of aroma and flavor complexity. It’s all about balance, of course. Too much herbaceous quality can ruin a wine, sure, but so can too much oak ruin a wine or too much alcohol, excessive acidity or overripe fruit. That why the saying the wines are made in the vineyard rings so true.
The wine in question, the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County, powered by 18 months in French and American oak barrels, also exhibits notes of black cherries and roasted coffee, deep powdery tannins and supple oak, an iron-and-iodine-tinged mineral character and a cloves-sandalwood-and-mint packed finish. 13.5% alcohol. Now through 2015 to ’16. It practically gets down on its knees and begs you to drink it with a medium-rare herb-crusted rack of lamb. Very Good+. About $20.
A sample for review.