What to Drink Now

Episode VI: Herbal savory reds


So here we are with herbal reds. Perhaps my biggest mistake in this whole series was naming this grouping “herbal.” Now while there is an herbal element that can be found with many of the Bordeaux varieties, I think I should have referred to these wines as savory, as opposed to herbal.

What’s the difference, you ask? Well, on one hand, the herbal character that some of these wines exhibit is in large part included in the realm of the savory (everywhere that term is used) and on the second hand, by limiting myself to “herbal” wines, I’ve done a disservice to you all. The group of actually herbal wines is quite small, and the point of this series was certainly less about defining wines and more – much more – about creating connections between wines that make some sense on a very basic level.  I do believe, as I have said before, that an argument can be made for including almost any wine in any category, but that is the exception, not the rule, and for my palate the following grouping of wines fit together very well indeed, as long as we call them savory!

Photo courtesy fairfaxcounty via Flickr/CC

Cabernet Sauvignon/ Bordeaux

Bordeaux is where my thought process started with this grouping and why not, right? Bordeaux has possibly become the most difficultly priced caricature of a wine ever. Now before you kill me, let me add a few caveats. I love Bordeaux. I find lots of inexpensive Bordeaux to still outperform. I even find some classed growths that are potential decent buys, but the truth of the matter is that the great growths of Bordeaux are, for the most part, not only too expensive, but too unlike what I think of Bordeaux to even consider buying.

Bordeaux, the Bordeaux I love, manages to integrate the savory elements of the grapes the region is famous for (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) with fruit and soil tones, as well as an element from the wine’s time in oak. Many of the most successful wines today have retained this fine balance that yields elegantly convincing wines, though more Merlot tends to be used today, giving the wines a bit of easy fleshiness that previous examples may have lacked.

Photo courtesy melop via Flickr/CC

Petit Verdot

Petit Verdot is one of the lesser known, and much lesser used Bordeaux varieties. Like similar grapes such as Carmenere and Malbec, Petit Verdot simply needed a different climate to realize its maximum expression.

Typically used to add structure and color to Bordeaux blends, Petit Verdot, being a very late ripening variety, rarely performed at its peak in the relatively cooler climate of Bordeaux.

When taken to other regions, however, the wine produced from Petit Verdot is rich and powerful with great black fruit and hints of pencil shaving, violets and distinctive vegetal – yes, even herbal – notes that are so typical of Bordeaux varieties. If you’re looking for something less intense than Petit Verdot but still in the same vein, I suggest taking a look at…

Photo courtesy Campobello Island via Flickr/CC

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc is one of the great, underappreciated grapes of the world. The backbone for many famous Bordeaux, it’s also the grape responsible for the great red wines of the Loire Valley, where it pumps out bright, crisp examples that feature the red fruit, moderate tannins and soft texture of medium-bodied Cab Franc while incorporating some of the herbaceousness the grape is known for.

In extreme examples, that herbaceousness can verge on full on vegetal, with notes of tomato leaf, tomato, dill and potting soil dominating the nose. Typically, however, there are simple herbal elements adding complexity to a great Cabernet Franc. If Cabernet Franc sounds like your thing but you really don’t need to notice the herb, check out…

Photo courtesy bagaball via Flickr/CC


Mencia is often compared to Cabernet Franc and frankly, besides some general resemblances, I don’t really see why. Yes, the wines are both medium-bodied, perhaps lowish in alcohol and red-fruited, but the resemblance ends there.

In fact, Mencia shouldn’t even be included here, but it’s one of the hot grapes of the moment and I do like it, so what the hell. It’s not herbal, or really savory even, being rather more earthy and spicy. In fact, I would venture to say that Mencia might just be the quintessential minerally red wine, so look forward to an article about minerally red wines soon since they are among my favorite and I’ve overlooked them as a category here.

So take this as a sign that the more we explore, the more we learn how little we know, myself included. I’m going to leave Mencia in here, but it’s not going to satisfy your herbal/savory cravings, For that I would have been better off using cool vintage Oregon Pinots here, but that’s getting into another level of specificity! For that you might consider turning to…

Photo courtesy Dirty Bunny via Flickr/CC


Speaking of “hot” grapes, Carmenere should be on everyone’s short list of wines to try. Another blending grape from Bordeaux, Carmenere has made the rounds, always producing something promising, but seemingly never living up to its full potential –  until Chile.

Yes, it’s taken a long time but as one who has recently tasted a slew of Carmenere, let me tell you why these wines seem poised for great things. They taste and feel like the Bordeaux some of us remember from the 1980s. They are medium-bodied and relatively easy to drink and to pair with food, unlike many other New World wines that have been turned into vanilla-laced fruit pop.

And finally, they are complex, with a decidedly vegetal streak in almost all, but an integrated vegetal streak that accents the grape’s innate red berry flavor with notes of fresh and dried herbs and tobacco. Let’s hope producers don’t figure out how to “fix” it!  Want something bigger, and perhaps even more savory? There is always…

Photo courtesy cosmic_spanner via Flickr/CC


Zin-o-mav-row, say it with me. It’s another wine that is not really herbal, but certainly is savory. Sometimes compared to Cabernet, other times to Pinot Noir, Xynomavro seems to adapt to certain terroirs, yielding distinctly different results depending on where it is planted and who is handling it.

Literally, the name means “sour black,” which is a fair characterization of the wine it produces, though there is of course much more to the story. Xynomavro produces rather structured wines with a deep plummy core of fruit accented by notes of tomato and olive that can become more pronounced, and even a bit herbal with age.

Yes, we can complete this loop, but know it is never truly finished because Xynomavro could just as easily be classified as fruity, or even earthy, wines that we will take a look at in future installments of What to Drink Next!

Photo courtesy arsheffield via Flickr/CC

Want to Learn More?

For more information, check out the other What to Drink Now installments.



Light Crisp Whites

Spicy Reds

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  • Out of curiosity, where are you finding good examples of single varietal Petit Verdot?

    Sep 13, 2011 at 11:55 AM

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