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Thinking about Thiols – Making Peace with Passionfruit

By November 28, 2012No Comments

Looking at the gold medal awarded Sauvignon Blancs at this year’s Air New Zealand Wine Awards (click here to see), it seems the thiol-expressive wines have taken a bit of a hammering. Nowadays, there seems to be considerable negativity towards the pungent, passionfruity styles, with sweaty-like aromas and flavours, and the numbers of these wines in the winners’ circle have been dwindling. This came to a head for me when, at this year’s award dinner, chairman of judges Michael Brajkovich MW recalled the wine judges’ credo: “It is the exhibitors’ job to innovate, and present the wines in whatever style they feel is appropriate. In the wine competition, it is the wine judges’ job to recognise and appreciate quality where it exists, regardless of style, and to reward it appropriately”. This got me thinking about thiols.

About a decade ago, I recall, working as a senior judge, being given the directive from a chair of judges and the deputy that the passionfruity, sweaty and pungent examples of Sauvignon Blanc were not what the variety was all about, and that it should not be endorsed. The reasons were essentially that the character was a wine fault, things going wrong in the vineyard, incorrect canopy management and even improper workings in the winery. The admonitions began to be made regularly. This negative attitude has been sustained, and even today, judges are cautioned about thiol-based wines. The message is always there, maybe a little moderated, with the addendum that as long as such wines are balanced with fruit, and are not too broad or sweat-dominant, they are acceptable. It seems that wines that are thiol expressive have a disadvantage nowadays.

Thiols an Expression of Site?
Research and development has provided some clearer details about the thiol expression. It isn’t a fault, but an expression of site. It seems the fertile soiled districts of Dillons Point and the Lower Wairau areas in Marlborough have the precociousness for its appearance. Some sites in the Awatere produce it consistently. However, the ability to enhance or manipulate the character is fairly limited. Winemaker input, with selected yeasts can add or take away a little. Canopy management also has an effect. Interestingly different vintages have a say, in one year it’s there strongly, other years it’s minimal, the site being a constant factor. Surely, this is the site speaking to some degree? It sounds a bit like terroir to me, which can only be a good thing.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. ‘Thiols’ is a generic term, and it encompasses characters that are desirable and not. Unless one is well-versed in the chemistry and identification of the different expressions, it’s all too easy to lump them together and dismiss them wholesale if there is anything remotely resembling the negative ‘gymnasium’ character. It takes a good deal of attention to make the judgement call on what is acceptable or not, and unfortunately a number of good wines may not have gotten to the point of being considered a gold medal winner because of insufficient discrimination of thiol expression in the earlier stages of judging. I’m absolutely certain that the result at this year’s ANZWA was not of Michael Brajkovich’s personal doing and direction, as he would have inherited judges with the attitudes and prejudices ingrained from a decade of conditioning. But it is pleasing to see that his open-mindedness may lead to a shift in attitude.

How Much Thiol Expression Do We Accept?
There are those who say that the full-on, passionfruity Sauvignon Blancs are difficult to drink more than one glass of. “Do we need to finish the bottle?” would be a reply. We don’t always finish off a bottle of Gewurztraminer, Amontillado Sherry let alone a bottle of Barossa Shiraz. Then there is the criticism that such styles are not what comes out of the Loire, the accepted model for the variety. What’s wrong with New Zealand having its own distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc? Our difference to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume has been a reason for New Zealand’s success! As South America and South Africa make inroads into the Sauvignon Blanc scene, there have been wines made in those countries that show the same thiol nature. So, there are vineyards in those countries behave similarly to vineyards in New Zealand. How will their industries react to it? Will they see it as a problem, as ours has?

To put a balance on my perspective, I also love the methoxypyrazine-driven styles of Sauvignon Blanc. And I probably have a greater tolerance for the cooler, near nettly/grassy styles that are an extreme expression of it too. These gooseberryish styles can often be harder to judge and appreciate, but the best examples have an unrivalled purity and drive, and a minerally thread that can take them to another world. For me, and the judges, we’re told Sauvignon Blanc should have ripeness, richness and sweetness of fruit (avoiding sweetness from sugar), concentration and length. Both the passionfruity thiol styles and gooseberryish methoxypyrazine models (which are not mutually exclusive) must conform to these criteria to be seen as good, and both versions can and do reach those standards.

My plea is for the industry to accept the different styles of Sauvignon Blanc and encourage the diversity. This will require a closer examination and understanding of the different expressions of thiols and a greater discrimination as to what is enhancing, acceptable or unacceptable. The consumer is influenced by the industry gatekeepers of wine judges, critics, commentators and writers. The judges in particular are extremely influential, and the open mindedness must be strongest in them. It’s time the industry made peace with passionfruit.

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