I think I was possibly the first to publicly raise and discuss the ‘vintage character’ of 2004 reds – anecdotally whites are also affected – Christophe Roumier is one who says this – but I’ve not experienced any obvious examples, so from here-on, red it is…
[Edit: Whites – Now I have]
Early on, I’d empirically estimated that about 30% of cuvées had a strange aromatic profile, elevated levels of which also affected the taste. I assumed a large but limited extent to (let’s call it for now…) the ‘taint’ and one which would hopefully subside, but an October 2008 lunch with fellow enthusiasts that focused on 2004’s left me questioning that perspective.
It was only by chance that I mentioned my experience of grape-baskets often with dozens of ladybirds (ladybugs or coccinella depending on your location) at harvest-time, but quick as a flash, Don Cornwell found a potential link – pyrazines – I’ll come back to those later.
But first, let us take a step back. As the wines matured in their barrels, the 2004 reds were better than many had expected – much rot had to be triaged (I was there), but the result seemed worth it. The wines showed ripe fruit coupled to a nice freshness, and many looked a good buy after the somewhat bizarre 2003’s. At en-primeur tastings all was fine, and for the first two or three months in bottle they repaid my confidence, but less than 6 months after the bottling there was an obvious ‘odour’ problem. Today there are some wine-makers (David Croix for instance) that say they spotted a disturbing ‘greenish’ element early in the elevage, but that it quickly disappeared – maybe it was only Lalou Bize-Leroy who truly spotted it, and THAT was the reason she blended all her wines together…
[Edit: See document #4 at the end of the page – from the conclusions I note: “This result, and the limited performance of deodourized oak here, suggest that the oak chips are masking the taint with oak-derived volatile components, such as vanillin (Perez-Coello et al., 2000) and cis oak lactone (Sauvageot & Feuillat, 1999).” If volatile oak components do have a masking effect on pyrazines, this might explain why the taint only came to the fore a few months after bottling, as those volatile oak components started to fade. Only conjecture of-course. It might also explain why some found a nasty green aroma early in the elevage, before it was coverd (masked) by barrel extracts….]
This ‘character’ of the vintage.
The closest for me was a peculiarly old English thing – the smell of Wright’s Coal Tar Soap – an almost mineral, chemical, carbolic smell; from the ‘natural world’ I would describe it as similar to a cedar/sandalwood mix. Others say ‘mirepoix’ or very simply say ‘green’ which is an unfortunate use of the word/concept – even though I slip into using the term myself – because traditionally when discussing red wines, ‘green’ implies just about any element that might indicate ‘unripe’, and 2004 wines are far from unripe. I have come across truly green (unripe) 2004’s – but in this case my descriptor would be pine-needles and it is not the ‘character’ we focus on here. The latest description comes mainly from french tasters who describe the aroma of gentian flowers – it sounds lovely, but you have been warned!
Most lists of ‘green descriptors‘ don’t describe very well the 2004 character. The only other vintage I consistently noted a similar descriptor was young 1998’s but it was very mild; given their astringent sand-paper tannins a number of people said that ‘green’ came from unripe tannins. I no longer find it in the typical 1998.
Who is affected?
Close to everyone and no-one depending on your sensitivity. Bottles opened by me between September 2006 and June 2007 indicated about a 30% level of ‘infection’. Later tastings, but smaller samples, had a majority showing the effect. The issue was that in the early months after bottling, the producer was not an indicator – find two cuvées whose elevage were side-by-side and in many cases only one wine would show the taint. You could find it on a low level in the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but here’s the interesting thing; at low levels, it’s just another small note of complexity and it’s actually rather nice – e.g. Fourrier’s Morey Clos Solon tasted in October 2008 – but increase the concentration and it’s nasty. A much bigger concern to me is that some bottles I opened 2 years ago, bottles that were fine, now show the ‘issue’ so the ‘infection rate’ certainly hasn’t ‘peaked’ yet. Some people, as ever, are significantly more sensitive to it – I seem to be able to pick it up at very low levels. For those of low sensitivity, this remains a relative bargain of a vintage.
What is it?
Well chemically, a number of more technically oriented wine-makers have told me the smell is of pyrazines, most likely methoxy-pyrazines (MP’s). If so, that doesn’t bode well for a slow reduction over time – pyrazine odours can often get worse with time. Pyrazines also brings us back to our cute little beetle friends. The linked report in the third paragraph (above) shows that coccinella use methoxy-pyrazines as sexual attractants, they are also used as a defence alert – pick one up and the yellow colour that they leach onto your fingers also contains pyrazines.
Alkoxypyrazines; ‘alkoxy’ implies any of thousands of pyrazine combinations with methyl (methoxy), ethyl (ethoxy) etc., etc.. This group of naturally ocurring compounds have long been found in grape-juice and wine; some varieties like Savignon Blanc derive a portion of their characteristic aroma profile (e.g. when in New Zealand) from these strongly smelling compounds, whereas with Cabernet Sauvignon, the compounds show ‘bell-pepper’ aromas that people associate with cool climate wines and less ripe fruit.
This class of compounds can be detected by the humble human nose at incredibly low concentrations, not unlike those other unwelcome guests in your wine-glass, TCA and Geosmin. Some of us are sensitive at levels of parts per trillion – that’s much more sensitive than you are to cork taint – TCA. Although the human nose can detect these at extremely low levels, there is considerable variation not only from person to person, but also the same person depending on the time of day.
In his essay ‘Drinking in Minerality‘, writer Jeff Cox thinks that pyrazines may be partly what we percieve as ‘minerality’, that said, the following quote is most relevant to our discussion:
Human beings can detect pyrazines in vanishingly small amounts, such as parts per trillion. “One drop in the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., and you’d smell bell peppers all the way to the Beltway. [So] minerality could be really low levels of pyrazines.” He points out that “grassiness” in Sauvignon Blancs is caused by pyrazines.
So is there any good news? Not yet, it seems that even in the bottle (assuming that MP’s are our problem) MP’s seem stable; “Aging in a dark cellar for 3 years did not change the concentration of MP in the wine.” It seems we know quite a lot about the development of MP’s in the vineyard/grapes, but less about them once they are bottled.
How did it get there?
A link could be the Coccinella. Some people pooh-pooh the idea of ‘ladybugs’ being the source – ‘you expect me to believe that every vineyard was infested with these things?‘ Actually no, though it can happen. The vineyard is in many respects a red herring; 2004 was a year with an over-abundance of coccinella, the following year the cuveries were full of fruit flies, the year after that the grapes were full of earwigs. In 2008 there grapes were almost fauna-free as they were so cold! There are natural cycles and some insects dominate for a year and are seen less the following year. It’s not about how many coccinella were in the vineyard, it’s about how many were in the cap of the fermenters or on the triage table (left) – remember 1 part per trillion is probably 0.01 of a coccinella in a large fermenting tank!
That coccinelle can taint a wine is empirically demonstrated by a number of authorities; A department of the Swiss government put out a press communqué in August 2007 alerting vineyard owners to the arrival of the asian version in some vineyards, indicating that the beetles could affect the taste of the wines. They further did some follow-up vinification work on both Pinot Noir and Chasselas (Chasselas is a popular Swiss white variety) with these Asian Coccinelle in the mix – both wine varieties were equally affected. If you are interested to read the report in German, it is here:
“In 2007, they collected adult beetles in fields of sunflowers. Then they made two tests. On the one hand, they threw ladybugs live in pots containing crushed-stemmed grapes of pinot noir. On the other they have pressed chasselas with the small animals. After a standard microvinification they put the wine bottle in March 2008 and they have tasted in May. The addition of the beetles does not affect the basic composition of the wine: pH, acidity and ethanol content are unchanged. However, they are very clearly the cause of bad tastes.
The tasters noted an imbalance to the Chasselas wine and a strong smell of rancid oil. The finesse and fruitiness were also heavily penalized. The addition of five beetles per kg grapes to Pinot Noir equally penalised the red wine. It affects the quality of tannins, the finesse, fruit and the structure of the wine. Researchers estimate that one can see the bad taste of 0.3 Asian Coccinella per grape cluster for Chasselas and 0.2 for Pinot Noir. This corresponds to 18% (chasselas) and 12% (pinot noir) clusters settled by at least one beetle.”
That the taint was visible so quickly in the Swiss tests as opposed to the months it took to develop in burgundy’s 2004’s could be down to either (or both) of 2 things:
- they added a lot of ladybirds to get the effect i.e. much more than the Côte d’Or experienced. 12% of the clusters also sounds quite high – I’d ‘guesstimate’ that it was more like 3-5% on our sorting table.
- or that the population of 2004 could have been the smaller european version that maybe is less ‘potent’ – I have photos of both, but I’d need an expert to judge
Of-course there’s a third possibility – Coccinelle are not involved in the 2004 ‘vintage character’ at all…
This is conjecture. I’ve ‘hypothesised’ Coccinella as a plausible reason for the malaise that affects so many wines from the 2004 vintage; many winemakers accept that possibility whilst others remain unsure. I fully accept that Coccinelle may not be THE reason – but thus-far no-one can tell you otherwise and there is certainly no alternate and ‘viable’ theory yet proposed. I expect that no wineries will be sponsoring research to find a ‘root-cause’ as they have to concentrate on selling their 2007’s.
Other than to ‘keep my hand in’ I’ve all-but stopped opening 2004’s as I don’t like the ‘taint’ whatever its source, so the vast majority of my bottles will stay in the cellar a good few more years to see whether MP’s really do diminish with time – and that’s a shame as the vintage had much early charm.
I’ll end with a list of 2004’s that I’ve tasted, and I’ll leave you to work out the code. The list has a large measure of chronology about it, making the colour-change an interesting but depressing story…
There are 22 responses to “2004 à la coccinelle”
Hi Bill, interesting theory. Are there any lady-bug unique chemicals or chemical combinations that would have ended up in the wines? If so, we could test the wines for these, i would imagine.
Hi Paul – I think the problem is how to separate from the background as MP’s occur naturally in grapes and are actively ‘managed’ via canopy management in the US for example. That and the difficulty of accurately determine/isolate a molecule at parts per trillion…
I have been convinced that something was up with my Magnien and Arlaud 2004 wines. My friends called then the ass wines, because they stunk. They have everything else, good color, good body and decent flavor. I am confident your theory is correct… I purchased around 10 cases of 2004 red and found them all stinky. As for the whites close to 20 cases and very happy with the style and development.
Glad your 04 whites are panning out well jeff, particularly as I have a few nice ones squirrelled away…
Great coverage, Bill, of an ongoing vintage profile. Particularly fascinating your compilation of 2004 wines indicating those with some taint. A quick view of your list suggests that there’s a low proportion of cote de beaune wines with the defect (two pommards, one aloxe, one savigny out of many untainted cote de beaunes. The cote de nuits are closer to 50/50). Is there anything to be read into this small-sample trend?
Maybe not Rod – the thing is I noticed that Liger-Belair appeared twice – one time from almost 2 years ago, and one time from last month – only the most recent showed the ‘taint’, so I dropped the older reference. That implies that for some producers it was even later developing, so what I have in black, could (2 years on) be green in a number of cases. I note that many of those Côte de Beaunes were drunk rather young…
Fruit flies in a winery can be managed with a UV trap. Asian fruit flies have to be managed in the vineyard as are ladybug infestations. You haven’t mentioned how producers or the Co-ops they purchase grapes from, approached this pest problem.
Hi Biill – I’ve seen an occasional UV trap in cellars, but never thought much about it. Proactively I’m not sure anyone systematically looks at vineyard pests other than the pheromone strips for moths etc. I’m absolutely sure no-one has a lady-bug facing strategy, but if a reader knows different…
I must admit I’m quite relaxed about this problem;though the wines are generally pretty unattractive now compared to a year ago that’s sort of normal with any vintage. I did follow the wines for a further day after our sampling and the ‘taint’ either disappeared or became barely noticeable, with the curious exception of your Potel Chambolle villages from half bottle which really stunk to high heaven after being open for twelve hours or so. I’m buying wines from top people at good prices where offered-experience has taught me that tasting is not actually that useful a tool for deciding which wines to buy, which may seem counter-intuitive.
While I haven’t had any 04’s, what I have heard (read) is ladybug taint can be reminiscent of peanut butter (!). Combine that with fermented grape juice and voilà-PBJ in a glass!
Bill. The Niagara region in Canada had a big outbreak of Asian lady-bug taint in ’01 which made many wines undrinkable. With proper harvesting techniques, much of it can be eliminated.
While I haven’t had too many BURG ’04’s just yet, what I have tasted is nothing like Lady-bug taint. Swirling generally does dissapate the taint.
Think rancid peanut butter.
Hi Chris – thanks for this,
Certainly the odour is not (to me) related to peanut butter, but paraphrasing Monty Python; ‘would that be an European or Asian Ladybug?’ on the vines. Who knows, but for me, swirling makes little difference with the badly affected.
I was directed to this, having blogged about this problem, sounds like a probable cause – certainly better that the previous mumbled responses about “gout du millesime”. Cheers, drink up and move on to 06 is what I say!!
Hi Gabriel – well they are not wrong about it being the “gout du millesime”!
Cote de Beaune reds are most definitely affected. I’ve been wondering what that very unpleasant taste is (chemical, carbolic, as you put it) in my ’04 Marquis d’Angerville reds. Interesting analysis. I’d say the Volnay ’04s are particularly affected, as the vintage was a bit dilute there anyway, so the taint may be more pronounced. Further south in the Cote de Beaune, and also in the Cote Chalonnaise, seems less affected. Instead, the rot is really evident in these ’04s. (“Sous-bois,” they prefer to call it.)
I’ve tried a series of ’04 bourg red in the past 2 years, my take was about 50/50. If MP is the one to blame, why shouldn’t any one prove it by lab, there’re plenty of labs that can analyse and detect.
“maybe it was only Lalou Bize-Leroy who truly spotted it, and THAT was the reason she blended all her wines together” You must be joking rught, Bill? If a tiny drop in a pond still makes stinky odor, then I don’t see blending could be of any help.
Thanks for the coverage, thank god I had not bought any bottle chez DRC.
Hi Jeremy – was tongue in cheek about Leroy, but my comment was not in respect of blending to improve matters – she thought her 04s not good, so she decided to blend them together to make ‘simple’ villages and regional labels that happened to be full of GC juice. Her aim could have been not to have stinking Musigny or Chambertin, rather stinking Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin…
Clearly only conjecture 😉
did you checked some more 04’s lately? I had some, and most of them seemed untainted to me. To be more specific: Roty Champs Cheny was good and Les Fontenys superb. Also Mugnier Clos de Fourches and Engel Vosne-Romanee village was really nice. The only tainted wine was a Seguin Gevrey Village. So, maybe the smell disappears when the vine is aging? Or was it just a matter of luck?
If you’re sensitive to it, then I would say you either had a lot of luck or things might be starting to improve.
A recent white (Ch. de Brailles Corton) was fine and clear for me, but I’m not yet tempted to jump into the reds 😉
I have gone deep into the ’04s. 90% of those tasted in the past 12 months were definitely effected by the taint. Early on in some cases, most notably 1er and GC wines, three or four hours in a decanter seemed to remove the smell, but lately this has not worked. Some producers’ wines were so nasty as to be undrinkable, with others the fruit eventually overwhelmed the taint to a considerable degree, although it was still there, only minimized. I bought heavily into the ’04 as the wines were cheap and appealing young. I must have tasted about 200 bottles from 30+ producers from my cellar or those of my friends, so this is a respectable sample. I am no longer buying or drinking them.
My forays are now (at best) occasional, but I have a 100% ‘infection’ rate over the last 6 months, and only two (red) wines that seemed ‘free’ in the last year.
I will keep taking an occasional look, but nothing more. Much as I liked the wines in barrel and shortly afterwards, I’ve not been buying for a while…
Thanks for the edification. Two bottles of Dugat Py Gev Chamb Les Evocelles were overwhelmed by the smell of crushed green peas; I have not experienced a previous aromatic to this degree. The wine had good color and fruit but the peas were unbearable. Your article was enlightening and probably on point. Thanks.
I appreciate the information. Although I can not judge whether or not the ladybugs are the particular problem, I can tell you that all of my 2004’s are virtually undrinkable. Furthermore there is no improvement with decanting regardless of the time allowed. I also have the sense that this problem is getting worse and that all of the other charms of the vintage will be long gone if and when this flaw ever dissipates.
The real problem for me is that I do not feel I can trust my judgment with new vintages. I did not spot this flaw in my very early tastings of the vintage and although I’m not seeing anything like this in the 05’s, 06’s or 07’s how do we trust the Burgundians to tell us what is going on?
I am a third year student at Plumpton College, studying V&O. For my final year dissertation I have made batches of wine with increasing additions of Multi coloured Asian Ladybirds, to conduct a sensory evaluation to explore the flavour profile and determine the threshold of detection in UK wines. I’ve contacted a producer in the USA because the author of a wine blog suggested that there is a good chance I will find the taint in this wine, so hopefully they will send me some wine.
But I’m also keen to get hold of some affected Burgundy. Would you be able to suggest something (not too expensive), that I can buy that in your opinion shows a good chance of being affected.
It would be really helpful for my project.
Hi Helen – thanks for your contact.
I would say the ‘Bourgognes’ would be the easiest place to start. I find it to relatatively modest extent in the 2004 Bachelet Denis, Côte de Nuits Villages – but that was 4 years ago – people now tell me the wine is almost undrinkable.
The only problem with that bottle is that it’s from a rather ‘sought-after’ producer – if you were here (Switzerland) I would give you my only bottle ;o)
Having predominantly avoided more than a handful of 04s because of my dislike, I don’t have any other current ‘recomendations’ for you here – but maybe others will chime in!
Hi Helen – I have a bottle of 04 Bachelet CdN-V you can have and am not far from Plumpton if you’re still interested?
Bill- thank you very much thats so kind, I wish I was in Switzerland!
David- Also thank you very much for your reply, I’ve sent you an e-mail.
Bill interesting piece on the BBC today about the rise in numbers of the Asian Ladybirds/ bugs in Europe over the last decade. Towards the bottom of the article it mentions their liking for grapes and the resulting spoilage of wine when they get trapped in the production process. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22554162
Hi Julain – thanks.
We’ve had the asian variant in Switzerland for quite some time now – they have even overwintered in my roof-space during some of the last wineters – not this though, and I still see none in the garden – but perhaps it’s still too cold(?)
The ones I’ve seen in Burgundy have been uniformly red and smaller than those in my garden – so I assume the indigenous variety. But for how long…
Very interesting. So the indigenous ladybirds should be considered a part of the terroir (assuming these have been ending up in the must in the past)… So if the Asian ladybirds are here to stay – terroir definition will be affected?
Or maybe just trading one type of taint for another – stronger/weaker – who knows!
Bill, my only bottle of 2004 Reyane & Pascal Bouley Pommard was opened last night in a flight of six 2004 Pinot noirs last night at our monthly tasting group. It was the only Burgundy in the flight. All of us thought the wine was flawed but not in the usual sense (corkiness, high V.A., excessive brett, etc.). Comments ranged from “musty goat cheese” to a “nutty dustiness” to “stewed sawdust” to “alum and a fermentation prickle?” The flaw did not blow off over the course of the tasting. One attendee happened to mention the ladybug problem that was present during the 2004 harvest and crush which led me to your article. Although I don’t make a habit of eating crushed ladybugs, I’m guessing this bottle had more than a few coccinelle body parts per trillion. BTW, the 2004 Cameron Abbey Ridge Cuvee L&E, 2004 Patricia Green Cellars Notorious and the 2004 Francis Tannahill “The Hermit” were all more “burgundian.”