Tasting Terms: Blackcurrant

by Steve De Long

Put down your glass for a second and give a warm Wine.Woot welcome to our newest guest blogger, Steve De Long of De Long's Wine Info, publisher of our favorite wine charts, maps, and books. The wine experts at De Long's are masters at making it easy for the rest of us to fake it. For his debut column, Steve answers a question that's occurred to any American who reads tasting notes: what are "blackcurrant" and "cassis"?

“Everybody knows the blackcurrant bush.”
-Le Nez du Vin, Jean Lenoir

Blackcurrant is the most common flavor descriptor of the most popular grape variety in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon. At least the British think so. American wine writers tend to use the term cassis, which is French for blackcurrant.

You may be asking yourself: wait a minute - what’s going on here? I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a blackcurrant in my life, much less seen a blackcurrant bush. Am I supposed to know this? Is Bacchus once again laughing hideously at my woeful ignorance of wine? And when did American wine writers become such Francophiles that they use a French term over a perfectly good English one?...

Don’t be so hard on yourself. The reason that virtually all Americans are not familiar with blackcurrant is simple: until recently it was illegal to grow them in the US. Although popular in the 19th century in America, blackcurrants were banned in the early 20th century by the US government; their bushes can carry a disease fatal to white pines that threatened the then booming timber industry. The federal ban
was finally lifted in 1966, but it took until 2003 for several states, including Connecticut, New York, Oregon and Vermont, to make it legal to grow blackcurrants in the US again. 1

OK, but what about American wine writers using French over English? That’s because their exposure to blackcurrant flavor was (and probably still is) through Crème de Cassis, a liqueur made from blackcurrants, which is more commonly known simply as “cassis” in the US.

The British have a huge head start in being able to recognize blackcurrant. One of their most popular children’s drinks is Ribena, which is a sweetened blackcurrant drink. Is there any accident that their favorite wine region is Bordeaux, the homeland of Cabernet Sauvignon? They even have a special name for red Bordeaux wines: claret (which is pronounced with the t since it’s an English term, although derived from French).

I can remember trying to get a grip on blackcurrant when I was living in New York City. Blackcurrant jam and Crème de Cassis were available but I wanted to find a more pure, unadulterated version. The best I could find was a Belgian brand of blackcurrant juice – which must be in the top ten of brand names that do not travel well – called Looza. It never really caught on. Go figure.

In addition to Ribena, British children also enjoy blackcurrant flavored candies. This is where the attractiveness of blackcurrant gets lost on me – the candies seem to taste a little rubbery, rubber as in a Pirelli or a Goodyear. While some British children would eat only the blackcurrant candies in a pack of Maynard’s Wine Gums (interesting name but they contain no wine) I could imagine American children doing just the opposite.

In this way, blackcurrant aromas can be perceived in sulfur compounds in wine that are often considered faults. These volatile sulfur compounds can be pleasant at lower levels (tropical fruit, gooseberry, blackcurrant) but awful at high levels (cat’s pee, burnt rubber, rotten cabbage).2 This seems to make sense as it’s not difficult to imagine the funky and gamey qualities of blackcurrant morphing into something foul. Perhaps this dark, potentially dangerous (and smelly) side is what makes blackcurrant so attractive.

We did a tasting of several Cabernet Sauvignons to see which gave us the biggest, purest sensation of blackcurrant. Five California fighting varietals vs. the popular South American, Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo took part in the smackdown. Each wine’s blackcurrant power is rated on a scale of 1(not detectable) to 10 (total blackcurrant pumptitude).

Concha y Toro Castillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon Chile 2007 $10
Blackcurrants on steroids. It’s easy to spot the blackcurrants dominating some green pepper and vanilla oak notes on the nose and palate in this widely available Cab Sauv. 9/10

Bontera Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino County 2006 $16
The organic entry, this clean, pleasant and fruity wine’s blackcurrant flavors are in the back seat to raspberry and blackberry. 3/10

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005 $27
The blackcurrants here are more nuanced and nicely integrated with oak and mint flavors. It’s just too refined for pure blackcurrant pumptitude. 6/10

Sebastini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2005 $16
A very attractive nose, blackcurrants and violets with a touch of oak. The fruit is very concentrated but the violets distract too much – albeit in a good way – to give it more than an eight. 8/10

Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon California 2005 $14
This was the most subdued of the bunch with blackcurrant a virtual no-show. It’s much more sour cherry, cedar and Dr. Pepper. 2/10

Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon Vintner’s Blend California 2004 $10
Juicy blackcurrant with notes of black cherry and oak, the Ravenswood is a simple wine but it matches the Concha y Toro in blackcurrant intensity. 9/10

It was probably a forgone conclusion that the most inexpensive wines of the bunch would provide the simplest, most fruit-forward expression of blackcurrants. It’s a funny way to taste: we weren’t interested in balance, subtlety or nuance. We also kept referring back to our reference aromas: bottles of Crème de Cassis and Ribena. Still, it’s nice to know that you can get a good idea of what blackcurrant tastes like without shelling out too much; or enduring the embarrassment of buying a bottle of Looza.

For more information about blackcurrants and their history see black-currant.com

2 For more information about wine faults and blackcurrant flavors see Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak and Tom Stevenson on the Wine Pages.