Referring to green pepper as a wine aroma may seem strange to those approaching tasting for the first time: who would ever think of associating the smell of green pepper to wine?
However, it is one of the most often used descriptors when it comes to wine because it is the typical varietal aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon, the most cultivated red grape variety in the world, and is also present to varying degrees in many other grape varieties. In particular, this aroma is found in all the Bordeaux red grape varieties (e.g. Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot), in some other internationally renowned red varieties (e.g. Pinot Noir and Aglianico), and also in some white varieties with vegetal notes (e.g. some Sauvignon Blancs).
It is also a "controversial" attribute of wine because if smelled alone, or in high concentrations, it can be unpleasant to the point of being considered (by some) a defect. If, on the other hand, it is present in a lower concentration, it can bring complexity and elegance to a fruity bouquet.
The molecules responsible for this aroma are the methoxy-pyrazines present in the grape skins. Pyrazines have a very intense odor and are perceptible to the human sense of smell even in very low concentrations. Whoever sniffs this smell blindly for the first time has a hard time recognizing it. But once recognized and memorized it is never forgotten and it becomes very easy to identify even when its presence is barely perceptible.
The chemical compounds of methoxy pyrazines are different and responsible not only for the characteristic smell of green pepper (2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine molecule), but more generally for the typical vegetal scents of asparagus and green peas (2-methoxy-3 molecule -isopropylpyrazine), tomato leaf and others. These aromas are not to be confused with the general herbaceous notes typical of wine produced with unripe grapes.
Methoxy pyrazines are molecules that accumulate in the grapes of some wine varieties to varying degrees depending on the climatic and growing conditions of the grapes. The concentration is higher, and therefore the vegetable aroma is stronger, in those grapes grown in conditions of:
- plenty of water,
- limited exposure to light,
- limited maturation.
The very ripe grapes coming from hot climates and sunny places, on the other hand, have a lower concentration of this aroma.
The varietal aroma of the green pepper, so persistent and characteristic, is an advantage in those wines that can age for a long time. In fact, with the passing of the years all the characteristic aromas of a wine tend to fade and the tertiary aromas from oxidation increase. This evolution continues over time and wines that are too "old" risk losing their original aromatic identity. The "green pepper" aroma on the other hand, with the passing of the years, fades but does not disappear, evolving towards mentholated and balsamic notes. When this aroma is present the wine does not lose its identity and on the contrary, with evolution, it is ennobled with more subtle and delicate vegetal and mentholated scents than those of young wine.
In general, therefore: a medium young wine or a wine with a few years of aging will have markedly herbaceous notes if coming from temperate climates and not too ripe grapes; a young wine produced from well-ripened grapes grown in sunny areas will only be slightly herbaceous; a wine aged for a long time will develop slight mentholated and balsamic hints.
Like it or not, green pepper is an aroma that every wine lover must be able to recognize! If you want to train your sense of smell to recognize green pepper and other aromas of red wine, click here.