This time of year, mentioning the word green in the context of drink is usually a reference to St. Patrick’s Day. But it’s also a term that applies to wine, not as a color but as a flavor descriptor. What does the flavor “green” taste like? Well, though its specific references depend on what the speaker has in mind, green in wine typically refers to vegetal aromas, from the pungent notes of jalapeño and asparagus, to wet grass, to the more subtle, herbaceous character of a houseplant.
The leafy character inherent to Cabernet Sauvignon provides complexity and flavor balance against the pure cassis and black cherry—it’s a beautiful duality that makes the wines more interesting. But California winemakers shy away from any green notes, associating them with underripeness. The other day, at lunch in Napa with two winemakers, I praised one of the Cabernets, saying that not only did it have a rush of tannins (not often found in Napa anymore), but also that I liked its little hint of leafiness. That’s the word I use when I want to allude to a wine’s green quality but don’t want to offend the winemaker. My dining companion had the classic Napa reaction: “We don’t want any leafiness in the wine,” he said. “That’s why we let the grapes get so ripe here, because as soon as a customer tastes anything green in the wine, they won’t buy it.”
Greenness has long been a staple of French reds: those from Bordeaux, the Loire, the Rhône, and sometimes Burgundy. But when winemakers saw that ripening their grapes during California’s long, sunny harvest season made the fruit lush and jammy, they began to equate France’s greenness with underripe, unpleasant wine. Why have herbaceous, underripe wines when you can have bushels of dark, juicy fruit?
And without a doubt, too much green can ruin a wine. But I often recall something I first heard mentioned by Tony Soter at a retrospective of Spottswoode winery’s famous Napa Cabs a few years ago. Formerly a Napa wine consultant who now makes wine in Oregon, Soter said that, though he had no scientific proof, it was his belief that “that little bit of greenness evolves into the earthy, mushroomy complexity we all love in older Cabernets.”
Those Napa Cabs that are ripened to the point of raisining and having expelled any hint of green from their aromatics don’t age well. They never develop that irresistible, umami-laden mustiness that makes mature Cabs so delicious. Rather, their jammy fruit holds up for a few years, and then the whole wine falls apart. This sentiment about aging was recently supported by Aubert de Villaine, codirector of the greatest Pinot Noir house in the world, Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC). “What I like is this little touch of green,” he said in the New York Times about his 2007 vintage. “When you have this in a wine, with proper maturity, of course, it’s a harbinger of complexity.”
That touch of green is present in a lot of red grapes, when they are harvested ripe but not too ripe. (Beware, however, of red wines that are too green, the way that Chilean wines used to be—a good wine must be balanced, with, yes, a bit of green, but with pure, ripe fruit flavors as well.) In Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Gamay, green can sometimes enter a wine with the inclusion of grape stems in the fermenting tank, a technique known as whole-cluster fermentation. You see this in both Burgundies like DRC or Domaine Dujac and new-world Pinot Noir like Calera. You see it in Syrahs from the Northern Rhône, such as the Cornas of Domaine Clape, as well in some new-world Syrahs like those from Failla on California’s Sonoma Coast.
So before you reach for that green beer, consider reaching for a slightly green red wine. Or don’t reach for it, but rather let it sit for a few more years and achieve its full potential. Here are two that I recommend:
Lang & Reed 2007 North Coast Cabernet Franc (about $20)—Lang & Reed has never shied away from expressing Cabernet Franc as it should be: lots of bright cherry fruit up front, but with its green, herbaceous underside proudly on display. The wine is held together with a quivering line of acidity and a wash of lusty tannin. Simply joyous to drink.
Calera 2007 Central Coast Pinot Noir (about $20)—With just a hint of green from a partial whole-cluster fermentation, this wine is balanced between exuberant, juicy fruit and a pleasing connection to the earth as expressed through notes of herbs and leaves. Not for long aging, it is versatile for drinking in the next couple of years with fish, meat, or vegetables.