Green and Not Mean: In Praise of Herbs in the Glass | Rolfe Hanson

In decades around wine, I've never heard, "Can you recommend a good red that tastes of vegetables?" Yet I've known many wine drinkers who relish the subtle flavors and aromas of herbs in the glass. These are the hints of plants we taste with the primary fruits. But there's a striking difference between vegetal and herbal tastes, and in wines, which exhibit these green-plant characteristics.

When we speak of vegetal flavors, peppers, pickles, celery and tomatoes come to mind. The taste of is usually green -- dominant and in sharp relief to anything else in the glass. Veggies are not what winemakers intend as the flavor centerpiece, and generally not what consumers or critics pine for. Unripe grapes are often the culprit of vegetal wines.

Both fresh and dried herbal notes in wine include mint, anise, tea, common spices, mint and tobacco. A particular plant group and a spice blend are among the most well-known plant references in wine. Les Garrigues is a community of plants occurring in southern France which appears to influence and infuse vines by growing in the vineyard understory. Herbes du Provence, the spice blend which includes savory, oregano, marjoram, rosemary and thyme, helps describe southern French wine along with lavender. Herbal notes are generally considered less a flaw than the dominating appearance of green veggies but it's possible for the taste of either category to become cloying, destructive in bottles.

Wine cannot be infused before bottling -- mixologist-style -- with flavors of dill, basil or bell pepper; the inherent features come from soil, vines and climate, the quality and ripeness of the fruit, the wine-making, and eventually, the process of aging.

Most green or herbal wines fall into three subgroups, with some blurring: the flawed, the controversial and the typical.

An example of a flawed wine is Cabernet Sauvignon from underripe grapes: bell peppery and devoid of other balancing ripeness giving it a sharp, all-green edge. Or a Chardonnay with an indelible streak of asparagus in the nose, wiping away all hope of supporting flavor.

For controversial wine with a green streak, try peppery Carmenere from Chile. Or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc. Both wines exhibit a lot of green or herbal influence. Well-done Carmenere is often a melange of ripe flavors other than green and red pepper, with supporting elements to balance the wine. The same can be said for a green-tinged Sauvignon; other flavor and nuance supports the aroma of cut grass. The tastes aren't for everyone, but the wines are widely admired.

For wines which reflect plant notes typical to the wine, consider the following enjoyed recently. The 2013 Chateau du Roquefort Cotes de Provence Rose "Corail (Thomas Calder) is a pure expression of dry, red fruit supported by subtle but persistent nuances of herbes du provence. The 2011 Domaine Deypere Cotes du Roussillon Villages (Thomas Calder) exhibits a serious and savory profile of dark fruit complicated by hints of tobacco and sage.

In short, wines with flavors or aromas of vegetables seem to exhibit a monochromatic green quality. Wines with herb influence are often dominated by other typical fruit in the wine. The herbal components seem more in concert in the interplay of flavors. The hints of anise, flowers, or tobacco seem to support the primary flavors rather than become the flavor.

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