Who let the cat out?
Pyrazine is an aromatic organic compound that can be synthesized by infusing phenacyl chloride — otherwise known as riot gas, which was used by American forces during the Vietnam War — with ammonia, another nasty smell. The molecule is widely found in vegetables; in various forms, it exists in bell peppers, asparagus and green peas. The smell of pyrazine is strong, and while humans have different thresholds, the amount required for sensory detection is relatively low. According to this analysis, “Imagine one single grape in 500,000 metric tonnes of grapes changing the smell of the entire batch. This is the strength of pyrazine.”
Few would tolerate the presence of pyrazine in red wines. Indeed, the main reason why Monterey County red wines were almost destroyed on the market a generation ago was because they reeked of pyrazine; the notorious “Monterey veggies” was a category killer for Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon, a problem that still plagues it. Question: if pyrazine is such an aggressively annoying smell in reds — and it is — why do we tolerate it in Sauvignon Blanc?
I ask the question because I have once again shocked some vintners who asked me to taste their pyrazine-heavy Sauv Blancs. They themselves love their wines, and can’t understand why I would give scores in the low 80s, sometimes even worse. Well, here’s the reason: I detest the smell of pyrazine in Sauvignon Blanc. To me the wines reek of unripeness. “Sauvignon Blanc grown under cool conditions tends to have higher levels of methoxypyrazines in their grapes than Sauvignon Blanc grown under hot conditions” (methoxypyrazines are one form of the compound), says this scholarly paper, published last year in Wine Business Monthly. And who likes unripe wine, red or white?
I don’t remember pyrazines being an issue for California Sauvignon Blanc before the advent of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s. Those wines took the country by storm; people, including me, loved the racy acidity, and also the telltale taste of gooseberry. Maybe some Californians started picking earlier in hommage, I don’t know. Gooseberries are similar to currants, but they can be unripe also. A ripe gooseberry has a pleasant, Muscat-like penetrative scent (similar to the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc), while an unripe gooseberry is like any other unripe fruit, i.e. disagreeable and sour, like a juniper berry. You can make good pies, puddings and cobblers with unripe gooseberries, but that’s because they’re sweetened with sugar.
We’re talking about an aroma/flavor spectrum here. Gooseberries are fine, if they’re ripe and fragrant. So is hay, new-mown grass and other “lifted” scents that characterize Sauvignon Blanc. And then, of course, there are good, old, familiar citrus fruits that also are pleasant and proper in the variety.
But the extreme end of that spectrum is pyrazine. Call it cat pee, tom cat, feline spray, litter box, what you will, it’s a most unattractive smell. Nor do I believe that pyrazine is a typical smell in Sauvignon Blanc, one that a critic should respect even though he might not personally like it. That’s not true — unless you insist that unripeness is typical of the variety.
A few days ago, I tasted a high-end Sauvignon Blanc from a well-known producer and I could not give it a good score because of the pyrazine. When I later saw the producer, he asked me what I thought, and I had to be honest, in a polite way. He seemed puzzled that I didn’t “get” his wine. I was puzzled also. Did he not smell and taste the same pyrazine as I did? And then, just this morning, I got a request from a Napa winery to retaste their Sauvignon Blanc, which I’d given an “81” because it was so pyrazine-y.
Maybe sensitivity to pyrazine runs in my family’s DNA. When I once gave my sister a pyrazine-heavy Sauvignon Blanc, she said the smell made her gag. Or maybe pyrazine is an acquired taste. If so, I have a long way to go before I can accept it.
This just in: My blog has been named one of the top 10 Beverage Blogs in the country!