What Green Means

At the fantastic New Zealand Winegrowers master class and tasting on Tuesday with Oz Clarke, Ted Lemon, and Mike Weersing, I found myself thinking about what green means. Anyone who comes away from a tasting of New Zealand sauvignon blancs has probably written the word 20 times on their tasting sheet. (I certainly have). But it’s clearly ridiculous to use the single word “green” to cover a huge range (and quality) of wines. So, when it comes to sauvignon blanc, what does green really mean and can’t we telescope down to metaphors that are more specific? More on this in a moment…

First a pet peeve. The same sophomoric approach to green in sauvignon blanc extends to cabernet. I hear people all the time—people who should know better—use green pejoratively to mean that the cabernet in question is de facto poor quality. Hello? Green is woven into the DNA of cabernet’s flavor. And why is it that a sense of garigue (dry resinous herbs), chaparral, pine, green tobacco, sage—or any other of a myriad of greens—is bad? These constitute many of the flavors that reverberate through great Bordeaux. But some would say these are inferior…My god; should everything have to taste like cherries? I hope not.

Back to sauvignon blanc, I recently made myself a chart of the good ways in which green can manifest itself. (The wines I tasted yesterday, reflected many of them.) I’m sharing the chart below.

What suggestions for additions do you have? I’d love to get a conversation started about “good green”!

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4 comments on “What Green Means

  1. Great blog on green Karen! I think most winemakers would agree that the word green is misused and misunderstood in describing wine and food. Green is nature, it implies health and happiness and liveliness. I’d like to add the floral green to your list. The smell of freshly picked snap peas, the stem of the rose, the flower cluster (potential grape cluster) before bloom. It has been my experience that when my nose smells the attractive “green” that my mouth starts to water before tasting.

  2. Excellent article, Karen. Your comments on Cabernet, with which I’m in complete agreement, remind me of something you said during a blind tasting of Cab and Merlot a couple of years ago. “If I had to try to tell one for the other, I might look for the Sauvignon in the Cabernet Sauvignon.”

    I like your matrix of green flavors. I sometimes differentiate between savory herb (thyme, sage) and what I call sweet herb (more like tarragon). I use the term “foresty spice” to refer the somewhat resinous/evergreen-inflected blend of spice and herb that can come from stem inclusion. Occasionally, I find a green soapiness in wine which, when subtle, is similar to chervil.

  3. Karen’s comprehensive listing of green aromas above is wonderful to see – in our Sauvignon Blanc, we often find white peach and lemongrass – we love all. We had a tasting of ’90 Cabernets & Bordeaux yesterday, and I noted many positive “green” references. The Forman, which was the wine of the tasting, reminded me of being in a wild field in California in the spring. I got dried rosemary on the Shafer. Tobacco & cigar box on the Chateau Margaux. I found fresh cut alfalfa in the la Jota. “Green” is good!!

  4. Karen,

    I think you meant to write:

    “. . . can’t we MICROscope down to metaphors that are more specific?”

    A “green” methoxypyrazines descriptor I don’t see in your list that is commonly invoked here in the States: green bell pepper (as distinct from the less commonly used or eaten Jalapeno pepper).

    And then there is the “weediness” of underripe Loire Valley Cabernet Franc (as distinct from seaweed), which to me is akin to a cigar’s outermost leaves, or wrapper.

    And let’s not be too “delicate” in our vocabulary. The Kiwis willingly embrace the descriptor “cat pee”:



    Unrelated topic: Your new “Bible: comes out in 2015? Not destined to be available for purchase this Christmas gift-giving season?

    ~~ Bob

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