Question about sweet tobacco/cigar box notes in Bordeaux

Note we are talking about two different things. The cedar/cigar box is definitely not from pyrazine. Much, but perhaps not all of the time tobacco leaf is.

I did a Google search on this, and several sources mention the sweet tobacco leaf note may be just pyrazine character and more from just Cabernet Sauvignon not achieving full ripeness. If that’s the case, why do I not pick it up with CA cabernet in which the winemaker isn’t picking to make super ripe wine?

Old CA Cabs and Merlots can carry the humidor type thing. I’m sure the changing techniques discussed above and elevated ripeness levels are pushing it aside.

Wes, thank you for your usual clarity.

Brian, I am no expert but would not be surprised to hear that barely ripe in CA is often riper than normally ripe Bordeaux, at least with respect to things like pyrazines, maybe ABV as well.

Well, I would describe it as a varietal characteristic as modulated by particular élevage choices. And I think you will find it in CA producers who opt for a more traditionally Bordelais barrel programme, i.e. Philip Togni, Foreman, Mondavi Reserve before 2000, etc.

As for pyrazines being indicative of an absence of “full ripeness”, I think the latest literature suggests that they’re inherently part of varietal character but simply “masked” at very elevated ripeness levels, rather than being “burnt off”, as people used to say; but I’m open to correction.

I’m not the expert, but that was my supposition as well, hence my comments above. I pick up tobacco leaf and ash on a lot of old school Loire Cab Franc producers, including some like Domaine Guion that see very little new oak. In fact , I think only Le Deux Monts sees barrels. The old Renaissance Cabs and Cab blends throw more tobacco than any other California wine that I’ve ever had. Winemaker Gideon Beinstock used minimal new oak and kept alcohol levels low, as in generally between 12 and 13.

I haven t smoked any tobacco in decades but it sounds to me that people are using tobacco as another way of saying leafy or weedy stemmy, something Loire CF is famous for. I think these qualities have to do with ripeness, not barrels.

Sociando Mallet for example has lots of cabernet in the blend and has a lot of clay in the soil, so ripening would be retarded in many years. It’s been at least 15 years since I went there so maybe my memory is wrong.

Monterey county produced some astonishingly veggie cabs in the 70s and killed a lot of consumer interest in that! So I think most folks in Napa and Sonoma do their best to manipulate the grapes beyond that stage. Indeed,somebody once pointed out that if you put Ch Latour in a Napa bottle, everyone would pan it.

Sociando is also one of the most northern vineyards in Bordeaux, and they do not green harvest or control yields. This plays a big factor in ripeness and some of the herbal characteristics that many of us love from this Chateau. It always shocks me that Sociando only has 5% Cab Franc in the blend, one would surmise more given the normal profile of the wine. Also surprises me that Sociando uses 95% or so new oak, as it really doesn’t show it.

It’s more about sunlight on the grapes. Canopy management mitigates it. It’s definitely there when the grapes aren’t ripe enough. If I’m picking just ripe Cab, tasting secondary clusters (the first ones, which are about 3 weeks behind) will be very strong in bell pepper. I’ve picked at SCM sites that allow extended hangtime by virtue of the later season coolness, so sugars and acids barely budge. You get to the point the secondaries are fine. It’s always an issue to make sure all the pickers are careful about, and everyone on-board with the winemaker. Taste taste taste. Any cluster that looks questionable, make sure. Imagine a grape that tastes like bell pepper concentrate! It’s not subtle.

I really loved the old Chaine d’Or Vyd. Cabs. Around 12.5% ABV, wonderful perfume with a green peppercorn pop, black currant, cedar. When my friends Stefania Wine took over the wine making ('07-'14) they picked six weeks later! Winemaker Paul thinks it’s the coolest CS vineyard in CA. Their version (same wine under their and the Chaine d’Or label) was about 13.5% ABV, filled out with some blackberry fruit and less peppercorn. Still an excellent wine, good acid, well balanced. Less “controversial”, but still had some people thinking it was “too green”. I have a bottle from the current winemaker I should try soon.

Wes, it is far more complex than just one pyrazine. All you say above is true but 3-Isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine, green pepper pyrazine is extremely stable and is not being converted to anything. Now maybe other pyrazines in combination with other phenolic aldehydes are forming a complex of “tobacco leaf” like qualities but with wine containing hundreds of compounds it’s not one compound responsible for the aroma.

The phenolic aldehydes are especially important as they are found in the wine and cooperage, are not stable and will degrade to other compounds (and aroma) over time.


I thought Château Bel Air-Marquis d’Aligre would be an interesting experiment to parse the CT tasting notes. By the vast majority, I saw tons of tobacco and cigar mentions in a wine with all concrete aging. There were some mentions of cigar box still–with one example given:

5/30/2016 - WILLIAM KELLEY favorite LIKES THIS WINE:95 Points
From what may be the most resolutely old-fashioned of Bordeaux’s great estates, the 2000 Bel Air-Marquis d’Aligre is a stunning bottle of claret, bursting from the decanter with a deep and complex bouquet of cassis, dark plum, cigar box, graphite and some very fragrant floral top-notes. On the palate the wine is full-bodied, deep and very concentrated, with a firm core of impenetrable savory fruit underpinned by fine tannin and acidity. This wine is still only an infant, but its youthfulness manifests itself not in an aggressive and untamed tannic structure, but rather in that deeply savory core that needs a good decade to unfold and truly expatiate. Indeed, I fully expect this to be more compelling in 2030 than it is in 2020. Of course, this wine exists in the paradigm of the 1940s and '50s which will make it hard to read for those acclimated to contemporary claret. Indeed, this tasting note may make little sense to “those who could not hear the music”. But if you like classical claret it would be hard to find a more profound rendition in this vintage.

If BAMA has cigar box, I think that eliminates élevage practices as its origin?

BAMA is a great example, can’t believe I didn’t think of it. Lots of tobacco in that wine.

According to Chambers Street, it does see some minimal used oak:

After a six-month passage in old barrels, the wine spends two to three years in cement vats before bottling and release.

Looks like I’ll be trying to track down BAMA then :smiley:

I was just trying to see if I could delineate tobacco from cigar box by eliminating all élevage. The only thing I can conclude is that BAMA does have lots of tobacco (others will have to agree if there is any ‘cigar box’). Our southern lawyer’s objection, that it does in fact see some oak, was sustained.

Not as simple as that - classical Bordeaux élevage in barrels is complimentary to the wines: the inherent qualities of the grape varieties merge seamlessly with the patina imparted by the élevage. Just as in white Burgundy one can ask, are the fresh bread and hazelnut aromas coming from Chardonnay, lees aging, or oak influence? It’s hard to say. So in red Bordeaux, are the characteristics we prize coming from the grapes or the barrels? Again, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

I think if you compare e.g. Bel Air Marquis d’Aligre on the one hand, with minimal or no oak influence, and e.g. Mouton-Rothschild on the other, with perhaps the most distinctive proprietary cooperage signature of the Médoc on the other, you will see how the oak maturation is modulating the varietal characteristics of the grapes, amping up certain features and perhaps tuning down others. And then, for a comparison, look at Opus One, with similar cooperage to Mouton but very different grapes in terms of ripeness, and you can see what the barrels are contributing on their own to a more overtly fruity substrate.

Lots of interesting discussion here! As a Cab Franc lover, the notion of tobacco and cigar box, and the overall greenness of wine, is a subject of intensive interest.

I tend to reject the notion of tobacco as euphemism for a weedy or grassy profile. Rather, I view the ripeness of ‘green’ flavors in Bordeaux varieties as existing on a spectrum from cut grass/weeds → bell pepper → tobacco → olive. Perhaps it’s just low concentration of pyrazines can give a very different impression, in the same way that low levels of Brett byproducts (4EP/4EG) are complexing agents that can be leathery or spicy, yet create a sweaty horse cow pasture profile at high levels. Or perhaps it’s the interplay of pyrazines with other aromatics.

Regardless, I see tobacco as a sort of ‘noble’ green flavor in CF (and BDX varieties more broadly), where bell pepper and weeds are almost always a derogatory quality.

As for cedar and cigar box characteristics, I’ll defer to others on this topic as to whether it’s the oak or fruit. But generally I tend to find cedar more common in Bordeaux varieties, so it’s at least something they are inherently dis-positioned toward, even if it takes elevage techniques to really pull out the profile.

One final comment: isn’t micro-oxygenation used in part to reduce pyrazine profile? A phenologically unripe harvest won’t be solved by elevage, but if the above statement is accurate, then how pyazines present themselves will depend quite greatly on how and when the wine is exposed to air during elevage.

Great posts, William and Greg!

And I concur, Greg. Tobacco leaf is a major positive for me, and is quite distinct from herbs or bell pepper, which I also do not necessarily view as a negative. Adds to the overall color spectrum of the wine.

Maybe it’s my perception, but when I get notes of tobacco leaf (vs. cigar box) it has a sweet quality to it. Is that just from the oak or can there be other influences?

Yet it has a strong (though far from total) correlation to cab franc, too. I doubt Loire cab franc consistently has that flavor because of barrels.

South Africa is another good place to look for BDX blends with sweet tobacco notes.

Me too, Brian. I think that’s the debate upstream, some seemingly suggesting that it comes from the oak, others of us suggesting it is a varietal component, though it could more likely be some confluence of all of the above, or at least how accentuated the note is.

Chris I have always thought Raats made the most Loire Cab Franc Clone outside of Loire. It’s gotten pricier, but I used to buy a lot of it. Raats is South African. PS. Avoid their flagship CF bottling, it’s actually rather new world. The cheaper versions are the good ones. The impales Chenin Blanc for sub-$15 is really good good as well.