Last week saw some rather good wines find their way down my gullet. The first few of those was at a vertical tasting of Thelema’s Cabernet Sauvignon and single vineyard Cab, The Mint. At a time when the idea of ‘greeness’ is on many a South African wine anorak’s tongue, I hoped it would prove an informative tasting, as the latter wine prides itself on its minty note.
[This post got away from me. I feel I am not well-suited to the digital age of short pithy SEO optimized posts. If you want just my thoughts on the Thelema wines feel free to skip down to the bottom. First though, a little introduction to greeness in wines]
When the word ‘green’ is used to describe a wine it is nearly always as a pejorative. Sauvignon Blancs get away with it, but calling a red wine green, is similar to John Cleese shouting from a rampart that your father was a hamster and your mother smelled of elderberries. Now go away you unripe merlot or I shall taunt you a second time.
Let’s look at Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. We love the cassis, blackcurrant, black cherry fruits, the pencil shavings, cedar and tobacco that comes with age. We love its austerity and tannic bluster. We love it. Classic Cabernet. King Cabernet. Long lived Cabernet. Long live the King. It’s King not because it is the best, but because it has conquered vineyards across the globe. And like all conquerers it lays in its path many casualties. Local varieties ripped up – across the old-word especially – to make room for the more commercially viable Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape is pretty adaptable and is able to make good wines wherever it goes that do not differ from each other that much. A Cabernet is a Cabernet is a Cabernet. This is great for the consumer who can march into a wine shop wherever she is in the world globe and pick a Cabernet with certain amount of confidence as to what it will taste like.
Many also like it, I suspect, because it sounds just French enough to sound fancy without being too difficult to pronounce. It is a noble grape that can produce wines of extraordinary complexity, length and finesse that live on for years.
But like all varieties it can produce absolute filth. Especially when everybody wants to plant it. Punk was born with the Sex Pistols and choked on Avril Lavigne. But this post is not about the commercialisation of grape varieties, its about greeness and Thelema.
At first glance it all looks rather simple. When a red wine tastes green it is because it is underripe. But what does unripe mean? The job of the viticulturalist is to provide perfectly ripe berries for the winemaker not to screw up. Ripeness we understand. A banana goes from green, yellow to black. Easy. The same with grapes: unripe, ripe, overripe. The tricky bit is when is it ‘optimally’ ripe?
Too ripe and you get alcoholic, stewed fruited red wines, corporate over-weight slobs of wines; not ripe enough and you get green, thin, acidic, needy wines that’ll spit in your eye given half a chance. When a grape is picked during harvest is paramount to the eventual quality of the wine. To know when this moment arrives, some form of assessment is needed.
Many analyse the grapes measuring sugar, acidity, and pH. When these are at the correct levels the grapes can be picked. The amount of sugar in the grape corresponds to the level of alcohol the wine will end up with, for example.
The more natural wine making mavericks spurn the lab and go by taste alone. It’s a far more romantic picture: the gum-booted, long haired, (bio?) dynamic wine maker stomping through her vineyards, popping grapes in her mouth. One morning a grape is picked, tossed in the air, and caught in her mouth. She chews. She spits. A raised eyebrow. A moment of thought. Then a bellowing for the pickers. Harvest begins.
This method of determining ripeness essentially falls under the dubious term ‘physiological ripeness’. This basically means finding aspects of the grape other than sugar, acidity, and pH to determine ripeness. These include “skin colour, berry texture including skin and pulp texture, seed colour and ripening, flavour, and phenolic changes, often accompanied by lignification of the berry stem.”* This is slightly controversial as the terminology is imprecise, all grapes go through physiological ripening regardless of how it is assessed.
But it is thinking about physiological ripeness – bullshit or not – that we can better think about green flavours in wines. A wine may have the right amount of sugar for a nice fresh wine of 13.5% alc, but as the grape has not ripened entirely there will excessive flavours of green pepper, vegetables and despair.
OK. So that’s the ripeness side of things (simply put at least). In Cabernet Sauvignon the extreme nasty side of this greenness is green peppers. I had a Darling Cabenert Sauvignon once that was so goddamn green that if closed your eyes and sniffed you would have sworn it a Sauvignon Blanc. This is not interesting. This is not pleasant. This is faulty. If you try claim this as terroir, then my friend, you have planted the wrong variety.
It is of course is never that simple. There are ‘green’ aromas that can be appealing to some, such as a herbaceousness, a slight leafy edge, or mint and eucalyptus. But are these latter two even from the grape itself? Awww shit, deeper down the rabbit hole we go.
Australian red wines are known for having a mint or eucalypt character. The aromatic compound that causes this character is called 1,8-cineole. This we know, it was identified as far back as 1884, and is the main component found in the oil from the leaves of eucalyptus trees. The Australian Wine and Research Institute (AWRI) completed research on 190 wines and found, according to a Wine Searcher article:
that the existence of eucalyptus trees near grapevines can influence the concentration of the compound. The closer the trees, the higher the concentration of the minty smell . . . and that the machine harvesting of rows close to eucalyptus trees was likely to result in leaves from the trees being mixed in with the bins of grapes. Among their key findings, the scientists reported that even hand harvesting could “result in a surprising number of eucalyptus leaves in the picking bins.” From their experiments, they concluded that the “presence of eucalyptus leaves and, to a lesser extent, grape-vine leaves and stems in the harvested grapes” were the “main contributor to 1,8-cineole concentrations in the wine.”
Even those top end producers who hand picked, sorted, and sang sweet nothings to their precious berries before they were crushed, could not get away from the 1,8-cineol found on the grape skins. This also indicates why Aussie red wines have this character and not whites. The research showed that the longer the skin contact the higher the concentration of 1,8-cineole.
Alrighty then. This research suggests that eucalyptus trees can add to green flavours. Fine. This means we need to know our 1,8-cineole’s from our isobutyl-methoxypyrazines (the compound responsible for the green peppers flavours we want to avoid.)
[IF YOU’VE SKIPPED AHEAD STOP HERE]
The whole situation is a little more complicated than saying, “this wine is green” and carrying on. When we call a wine green we need to be specific. Not necessarily whether it is showing 1,8-cineole or isobutyl-methoxypyrazine (because, damn,that’s no fun) but how these characters effect the wine as a whole. And if a wine is claiming to gain its minty note from the trees that surround the vineyard, it shouldn’t have green pepper notes.
As geeky as this all sounds, it was on the minds of most tasting Thelema’s wines last week. Some of Thelema’s vineyards are surrounded by eucalyptus trees, particularly the single vineyard from which The Mint is made. Thelema is known for having wines with a hefty chunk of mint. So for me this tasting was a chance to see if these characteristics were a positive trait in the wines, or whether they were more unripe, and thus maybe not a positive thing.
I’ll list all my tasting notes below, but first my general thoughts of the wines. I found the Cabernet Sauvignon to be the better wine in the same vintage as The Mint. This is probably due to the ability to blend from different vineyards for the standard Cabernet, while the single vineyard Mint is what it is. I found at times the Mint to show more negative green pepper aromas than the standard Cab. It was sort of confusing as The Mint scores higher than the standard Cab regularly. Perhaps there is a marketing element at play here with consumers enjoying the ability to taste what’s on the box, and a ‘single vineyard’ wine suggesting extra-amazingness. I’m not sure. I’m not a believer in single vineyard wines for the sake of them. They should be made if the vineyard produces extraordinary quality, not as some sort of freakish side-show. Especially as they generally demand a higher price.
The Mint’s overt mintiness worked well in the better vintages (2006 and 2009) while in weaker vintages where less fruit was present the green edge overwhelmed. I also found in the weaker vintages that there was not just too much mint, but too much herbal underripe green pepperiness which was not attractive and suggests that the eucalyptus trees are not the sole source of mintiness in these wines. The same happened with the standard Cab, but because they could blend and tweak the wine this was negated to a large degree.
While the herbal/minty character can offer a freshness and savoury character in the better vintages, when it became the main aspect of the wine rather than an interesting side note, the wine as a whole suffered.
Finally, since 2009 a small amount of Petit Verdot has been added to the standard Cab, which I think has added to the purity of fruit, and (not my words but I agree) gives the wine better “fruit texture”. The scores suggest I prefer younger wines to old, but I think the wines have improved and I reckon the more recent vintages will age even better than the older ones. I hope I get to attend another vertical tasting in 5 years time to see if I’m right.
Standard “Black Label” Cabernet Sauvignon
|13,67||3,52||5,6||1,2||Fairly late, with even ripening|
Clearly showing its age in colour smell and taste. Predominant green herbal edge to the wine, sits a little apart from savoury, meaty, bloody character. With spice leather and tobaaco. Dark red fruits are there but fading. Mushroom and forest aromas dull the wine. Short and light. A little too rustic for me. 14.5
|14,14||3,48||5,5||1,1||Fairly late, with even ripening|
Brick red colour. Very meaty savoury nose, but not intense. Mineral aspect with developed note of forest floor. Pleasant. Red fruits, tobacco, spice. Lovely elegance on the palate. Good long finish, with some tannic force still in action. Red and dark fruits with some tomato leaf. Drink now. 16.5
|14,20||3,55||5,1||1,4||Fairly late, with even ripening|
Minty character on the nose is overt, covers dark red fruit. Touch of band aid on the palate as well. A rather austere wine. Very dry finish. Not too friendly. Seems a little stripped of fruit. Good clean mouthfeel. Least favourite. 14.5
|13,77||3,61||5,5||1,3||Difficult vintage, with rain during during critical stage of ripening|
Slightly browning rim. Positive tertiary notes of forest floor and mushroom. Meaty, iron, bloody, savoury character on the palate. Some herbal notes on the palate mingle nicely with cedar, tobacco leather and dried red fruit. Good finish. Drink now. 16
|13,58||3,58||5,7||1,4||Long ripening period, moderate to warm conditions|
Touch of tomato leaf and tobacco on the nose. A clean nose. The cool freshness of mint, rather than a minty flavour. Tannins feel distant but effective. Pleasing spice, some bright red fruit as well as cassis. Tobacco, cedar on the palate before a fresh long finish. The fruit and mature characteristics are complimentary. Maturing well. Has a few years on it still. 17
|13,85||3,54||5,4||1,6||Long ripening period, moderate to warm conditions|
Nose shows dense cassis and red fruit with some tomato leaf. Palate shows spice, leather dark chocolate underneath cassis. Rich, but lacking in weight on the mid palate, which gives the wine a lightness. . Good drinking. Tannins have melded. Lacks in intensity. 15.5
|14,38||3,87||5,5||1,9||Long ripening period, moderate conditions|
Dark richer fruit on the nose, Cassis, plums, dense. On the palate red fruit, leather and cederwood. Tannins more overt. Bigger wine, slight bitterness on the finsh. Darker fruits, dried dark bitter plums. Touch astringent. Tannins still kicking. 15
|13,94||3,59||5,5||1,7||Moderate to warm vintage, clean healthy fruit|
Clean bright colour. Fresh nose, with red fruits and dark cherry. A floral aspect that’s quite pretty. More obviously delicate than the 05. Cassis cedar and tobacco lurk behind. Flows well though the palate. Well structured, with fine tannins. Good balance. Bright and clean. Dark chocolate on the finish. Herbal notes but not unpleasant. Good drinking now. 16.5
|13,95||3,66||5,1||2,4||Long vintage, good colour and concentration, lower alcohols|
Brighter more youthful colour. Deep cassis, and dark fruits on the nose with a little cedar and tobaaco. Great intensity, fine tannins give great support. Very Fine. Palate is wonderfully balanced with sour cherry, cassis; pure fruited. A wine on a knife edge. Still youthful and tannic. Herbal note and touch of mint is an edge to the wine rather than a lead character – pine needles is a great description here. Persistent finish. A forceful, pretty wine. 18
|14,45||3,83||5,1||1,8||Moderate to warm|
Overt toasty note on the nose. This follows to the palate. Oak dominates fruit. Ripe dark fruit is dominated by toastiness. Doughnut palate (hole in the middle) Oak tannins give drying finish. 14.5
|14,31||3,7||6,0||1,8||Like 2008, there was a late start to the 2009 harvest. Long, moderate to dry warm spells led to near perfect ripening conditions. Possibly one of the best vintages the Cape has seen.|
Back to brighter red fruit. Lovely pure sour cherry and cassis. with cedar wood and pine needles. Very pure fresh fruit. Living up to vintage hype? Clean and bright. Elegant wine good structure and fine tannins. Lengthy finish with milk chocolate/bitter chocolate combo. 17.5
|tbc||tbc||tbc||tbc||One of the more difficult vintages in recent years. Warm spells of weather, with random rainy periods during the ripening period|
Floral aspect reminds me of the 2006. Bright red fruits. A good follow up to the 2009, just as instese. Blackcurrent, raspberry, sour cherry, cranberry. Bright and clean. Tannins very fine and unshowy. Good dry finish. Young and tight. Very impressive. 17.5
THE MINT (60%new wood) R225
|14,11||3,57||5,5||1,6||Long ripening period, moderate to warm conditions|
Overt M=minty note. Deep rich palate. Tannins, hold the wine well. Rich, big wine. Alcohol seems more evident than any of the standard cabs. A touch ungainly. 15
|14,38||3,85||5,0||2,0||Long ripening period, moderate conditions|
Very herbal, eucalyptis based nose. The marketing double bluff works here, as now I am looking for it I consider it less of an unpleasant thing, and more of an experience. Richer than the standard Cab A little thick. Lacks freshness. 15
|14,29||3,52||5,8||1,7||Moderate to warm vintage, clean healthy fruit|
Purer fruited. Bright red fruits hold the herbal edge better than previous two wines. Some savory meaty aspects. Fine tannins. Rich and bold but with balance. A great iron bloody character. The most elegant out of all The Mints. 17
|13,95||3,66||5,1||2,4||Long vintage, good colour and concentration, lower alcohols|
Bell pepper. Very green. This isn’t mint. Too much. Covers fruit. 13.5
|14,45||3,83||5,1||1,5||Moderate to warm|
Lacks intensity. Acid is a bit soft. Minty component is perhaps less obvious, but perhaps ends up giving a gawkiness to the wine rather than the freshness it gives to the 2006. 14.5
|14,69||3,69||5,9||1,4||Like 2008, there was a late start to the 2009 harvest. Long, moderate to dry warm spells led to near perfect ripening conditions. Possibly one of the best vintages the Cape has seen.|
Great vintage shines through. Pure dark fruited richness handles the herbal mint character well. Good fullness and intensity, with firm tannins. Good length, Oak spice. 16.5
|13,83||3,62||6,6||2,3||One of the more difficult vintages in recent years. Warm spells of weather, with random rainy periods during the ripening period|
Greeness hangs toward cannabis. Chocoalte. Spice. A little hot. Far less accomplished than the 2010 standard cab. Still has good juicy fruit, and a fresh finish. 15
*Oxford Companion to Wine 3rd Edition