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Jun 2, 2007 09:24 PM

Herbaceous vs. vegetal in whites and reds

I lack the expertise of some of the posters to this board, but I've tasted enough wines and read enough tasting notes to understand the difference between and vegetal and herbaceous. Vegetal is the unpleasant "stewed" flavor or armoa of cooked bell peppers or boiled asparagus or brussels sprouts. Herbaceous--more positive--describes the fresh-tasting notes of cut grass, herbs etc. I've had a few awful, vegetal reds and many lovely, herbaceous whites.

But can reds be herbaceous? I'm enjoying a zin tonight that seems full of fresh fennel, italian parsley, spring peas, a very subtle note of mint, maybe some ganja--along with the more oaky and peppery notes one would expect. The herbaceousness is very pronounced.

Is this normal, or am I going crazy? Can reds have that alfalfa/fresh meadow/herby spring rainfall zing that I've tasted in some of my favorite white wines?

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  1. Reds can definitely be herbaceous. As far as I'm concerned, herbaceous flavours (along with others, of course) are one of the things that give Loire Cabernet Franc its lip-smacking appeal; interestingly, Parker, who doesn't care much at all for Loire Cabernets, dismisses them as vegetal.

    Cabernet Sauvignon can also produce wines with pronounced green bell pepper and fresh dill flavours.

    1. Further thoughts...

      Am not certain vegetal necessarily refers to stewed vegetable flavours or aromas, just a kind of vegetable greenness. It would appear to be a pejorative term for most anglophone wine tasters, however (*végétal* is neutral in French).

      Michael Broadbent's wine tasting guide doesn't have entries for either herbaceous or vegetal.

      The New Connoisseur's Handbook of California Wines defines herbaceous as "literally, having the taste and smells of herbs (undefined as to species)" and describes it as a varietal characteristic of Cabernet Sauvignon and, to a lesser degree, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. (Webster's first definition agrees about the herbs but its second definition also admits the broader notion of leaf, which is my impression of what most wine tasters mean when they use the term.) The NCHOCW defines vegetal as "the smell and taste of wines [with] elements reminiscent of plants and vegetables" and goes on to mention that in some wines (Cabernet Sauvignon is again given as an example) vegetalness can, in small amounts, be considered part of varietal character but in large amounts or in wines where it's not expected it's a flaw. (It also points out that wine researchers have identified the compounds that make "wines smell like asparagus and bell peppers, but are not sure why it occurs more often in Central Coast vineyards than others.") FWIW, the entry makes no mention of stewed flavours or aromas.

      2 Replies
      1. re: carswell

        Thanks for your examples and clarification. I must have been paraphrasing Karen MacNeil. In "The Wine Bible," She equates "vegetal" with over-cooked, boiled or stewed green vegetables--definitely a flaw, which she ascribes to a certain chemical compound (don't remember which one). However, I would definitely characterize the zin I've been drinking as having a kind of "vegetable greenness"--more like the sticky, raw outer peel of asparagus than canned or boiled asapragus. It was largely pleasant.

        1. re: Yaqo Homo

          The difference between fresh vs over-cooked green vegetables is that the over-cooked - asparagus for example - smells of sulfur. In the case of wine likely hydrogen sulfide. Seems to me syrah is especially prone to that.

          I agree that a fresh, green tasting red can be wonderful and surprising given the trend to jammyness.

      2. I find that the line separating the two is fine, and dynamic, depending on how much a taster "likes" the herbal aspects. As you state, if I like it, it's herbaceous. If I do not, it's vegetal. Others, tasting the same wines make a distinction, based on their personal tastes. Case in point: about '97 Sanford did an SB from, IIRC, the Sanford-Benedict Vineyard (on-again, off-again vineyard for Sanford, depending on how well the two folk are getting along - that day!), that had such wonderful green pepper notes. I loved that wine, and bought a few cases. My wife would not help me drink it. My friends were split ~ 50-50 on it. Some really liked the "herbaceous" notes, some hated the "vegetal" aspects. I've had most vintages of SB from Sanford since, and none has had those characteristics.

        And, yes, I have found herbaceous notes in many reds, especially from the Rhône.


        4 Replies
        1. re: Bill Hunt


          I'm actually looking to find a few of these herbaceous Rhone reds. Past experience tells me to head to Northern Rhone. Unfortunately, my budget doesn't allow me to try too much of the Hermitage and Cote-Rotie. I think I'd mostly be limited to young Crozes-Hermitage. The last memorable one I had was a couple of years ago when I had a bottle of the 2002 Crozes from Paul Jaboulet Aine. It opened my eyes and I finally understood what people meant with "hints of eucalyptus." Any recommendations for something along these lines? Thanks.

          1. re: mengathon

            Unfortunately, most of my cellar's Rhônes are Hermitage & Côte-Rôte. I have but a few Crozes-Hermitage. I find that the herbaceous aspects do manifest themselves in the Syrah/Shiraz grape, but only when done as a non-fruit-bomb, i.e. many OZ Shiraz wines. I wish that I had a lot of mid-range recs. to offer, but maybe someone else can chime in with these.

            Sorry for being so little help,

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              That's quite alright. You've been more than enough help with other topics. It just means i"m going to have to increase my wine budget =)

              You're right about the Aussie shiraz. I am quite a sucker for them, but it's always refreshing to experience a completely different expression of the same grape.

              1. re: mengathon

                One thing that I have noted amongst the OZ Shiraz makers is that at the next price-point up, the diversity starts to get much broader. That, however, can probably be said for almost every wine production region in the world.

                Then, throw in the variables in climate, clone, vineyard geology, et al, and try the same varietal from across the globe - wow, basically the same grape, but what a difference.


        2. A small amount of vegetal-ness in a wine is often described as herbaceous, to paraphrase Hunt. Some delightful herbaceous aromas are tarragon, dill, cucumber, fennel, rosemary, celery, celery seed and mint.

          Vegetal qualities are described as green bell pepper, cooked green beans, cabbage, broccoli, onion, green garlic and asparagus, and are usually considered flaws.

          Green bell pepper and sometimes grassiness are due to pyrazines (IBMP or IPMP) and are the result of unripened grapes or low sun exposure.

          The other vegetal aromas are usually caused by various sulfur compounds. Methyl mercaptans and disulfides smell of cooked green beans, cabbage, onion, broccoli, asparagus and green garlic. The cause is usually a fermentation error involving oxygen (oversimplifying greatly) called reduction.

          If these “flaws” occur at low levels, they can contribute positively to a wine’s complexity, aroma and enjoyment. Like the grassiness in SB, or the asparagus quality that Yago Homo describes. At higher levels, the flaws become disagreeable.

          (To politely disagree with JunieD, hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and does not cause a vegetal aroma. H2S is the precursor to the two sulfur compounds above, but unlike them, is fairly correctable early in the fermentation process.)

          Also, some error-borne sulfur flaws smell not a bit distasteful but actually lovely, like passion fruit and grapefruit (3MH). And the same sulfur error can smell far different when it occurs in a red wine than in a white wine: the smell of cat urine in white wine (think Sauvignon Blanc; the compound is 4MMP) smells of black currant in red wine.

          Herbaceous notes can be inherent in red wine, as Carswell says, and at other times indicative of a flaw in the wine. Sounds like Yago Homo's Zinfandel is flawed, but it's nicely flawed and enjoyable, like the best of humans and Persian carpets.

          5 Replies
          1. re: maria lorraine

            Thanks for the correction - the very, very few things I know about wine I've learned in the school of home winemaking, aka hard knocks - which brings up some more questions. So, is it methyl mercaptans and/or disulfides that sometimes give Rhones and other syrahs their stinky, vegetable, sometimes - in my mind - eggy quality? Even those WE haven't made! Or is it something else?

            Second, we made a Pinot Noir last year which we crushed and partially destemmed by hand (and foot), leaving maybe 20% of stems in during primary fermentation. After 7 mo in barrel it has a bit of a woodsy, herbal finish, which seems to dissipate after aerating (sp?) in a glass an hour or so. Does that sound like a flaw? And/or is it a result of fermenting on stems? Thanks for any thoughts!

            1. re: Junie D

              Not being a homewinemaker, or any sort of winemaker, for that matter, you probably have it all over me. However, PN is a very tough grape to coax the best from, even with a good harvest from a great vineyard. It is not difficult to get too much tannin, from the stems, the pips, the leaves, and the skins, into the wine. Pump-over used to be an accepted practice to "extract" from the PN, for more body. Many winemakers learned that "punch-down" of the cap, and at intervals, yielded better wines. For PN, I would have totally destemmed, allowing for the tannins from only the skins to be present, and then with light handling.

              Hope that some PN winemakers will help you out, and probably correct me.


              1. re: Junie D

                Hi, Junie (Napa Valley neighbor)...It does seem that Syrahs as a varietal often have this vegetal quality, and I think, in part, that is intentional -- meaning the flaw becomes contributory at low levels and so not a flaw per se. If you're smelling *both* rotten eggs and vegetal-ness, my guess is that both hydrogen sulfide and (m)ethyl mercaptans are present.

                Regarding Hunt says...why not make a difficult wine? Seriously, Pinot Noir is such a challenge...and I cannot tell without having the wine in front of me what the woodsy-herbal *thing* is. I'm surprised you didn't de-stem 100% with your Pinot so that could certainly be a source of the woodsy ness....then again, if the herbal quality dissipates slightly after aerating, then my guess is that is ethyl mercaptan. Perhaps a combo of both things. Hard to could always invite me over to taste...I'll bring the can email me.

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  Hey! Only if you two do some TNs for the board.


                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    That is really kind of you! Why make a difficult wine? Well, the long and short of it is......... FREE GRAPES. And a winemaker friend making it with us. The best thing about making wine, for me, is how science and intuition have equal places in it. Like cooking, actually, but with a lot more heavy lifting. It is always fun to give professional winemakers a glass of homemade wine and see how the artist-apprentice types differ in opinion from wine-geek Davis grads (forgive me if you are either - I love them both). I have hope for this wine given the transformations that happen from barrel to bottle, and our low standards ;-)

              2. I'd be interested to hear from anybody who's tasted the 2005 Full Boat Cabernet. The ad copy mentions "underbrush," but that seems to be an understatement; what I got was Pine-Sol -- a Christmas tree dipped in camphor.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Bill on Capitol Hill

                  Funny description; now someone send this man a case a case of retsina. : )