To say that something tastes “goaty,” in common parlance, is to say that it tastes like goat milk or cheese. I suppose that English-speakers are, in general, more familiar with goat-derived dairy products than they are with goat meat. Too, goat milk is so distinctively flavored that its presence screams through anything to which it is added. Regardless, wine isn’t usually goaty. Usually.
Goaty flavors are apparently related to three fatty acids, the “goaty acids,” C6 (caproic acid), C8, (caprylic acid), and C10 (capric acid.) [NB: incidentally, the Latin name for “goat” is Capra.] These acids collectively comprise 15% of the fats in goat milk (thank you, Wikipedia.) All three have been found in wine. A wine that smells and/or tastes like goat, therefore, probably contains unusually high amounts of these acids.
Why do I mention all of this? By now, you may have guessed – correctly – that I have recently encountered a goaty wine.
The goaty acids are found in grapes and can be produced by both wine-related yeast and bacteria. What I’ve been trying for the past week to learn is what affects the amount of these acids produced by each source. Medium-chained fatty acids (MCFAs), including the goaty C6, C8, and C10, are antimicrobial, inhibit the growth and reduce the rate of growth of both yeast and malolactic bacteria, and are related to stuck fermentations.
MCFAs can slide into the phospholipid bilayer that ordinarily seals the interior of the cell off from its environment. When this happens, the permeability of the membrane increases; in other words, the cell springs a leak (or, rather, many tiny leaks.) This is, needless to say, dangerous.
The research published on wine microorganisms and MCFAs is vast. Synthesizing all of the primary data is more like the subject of a solid literature review for the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, not a blog post. Still, I’ve read enough to fairly conclude that the matrix of MCFA production by and influence on microbes and grape vines remains something of a mystery.
None of this helps me understand why a particular Finger Lakes wine tastes like goat. Or, more particularly, why several wines from a particular Finger Lakes winery taste like goat. Sheldrake Point was new ground for me on my most recent visit to my old wine-tasting grounds in upstate New York. Though I now live within easy driving distance of the wine-rich pastures of eastern Washington, my parents are still close enough to the Finger Lakes to be practical. A Christmas visit afforded an excellent chance to get up to the lakes, revisit several old favorites, and explore a new winery or two. We detoured from the eastern border of Seneca lake to the western side of Cayuga lake and Sheldrake Point on the advice of a Seneca winery tasting room manager. I’m glad we did. None of the wines was remarkable – consistently okay, but not great – but either the terroir of Cayuga lake is dramatically different than Seneca or else Sheldrake Point has a style all its own. “Goat cheese” was a common thread not only through the whites but also into the pinot noir, as was a lightness that stood out even among the typically light-bodied wines of upstate New York.
A few interesting notes about Sheldrake. First, it seems that they do enjoy an unusual mesoclimate. Like the rest of the Finger Lakes, they enjoy the temperature- and humidity-buffering effects of a deep neighboring body of water. Unlike most of the regions’ wineries, however, their vineyards come down nearly to waters’ edge. Their grapes also bed down on the remains of an old cattle ranch. Could that have something to do with those unusual flavors? Finally, I should point out that my impressions were far from normal: Sheldrake Point’s 2008 Late Harvest Riesling took “Best Sweet Riesling in the World” and “Best American Riesling” at Australia’s 2010 Canberra International Riesling Festival and the winery has been named “Winery of the Year” for two years running by Wine and Spirits Magazine and the New York Wine and Food Classic. Heck, maybe I’m weird.
2008 Waterfall Chardonnay ($12) – All stainless. Strong aroma of goat cheese, along with lemon and cherimoya. Flavor is very light and crisp, dominated again by goat cheese and lemon flavors, and surprisingly creamy. Tidy, longish finish.
2008 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay ($18) – Prominent, yet not intense barrel-colored aroma: lemon, vanilla, and oak, plus the same goat cheese note as in the Waterfall. A bit thin on the palate, a bit too much lemon-juice acidity in the mid-section, and a bit oak-heavy on the finish. Not bad, but not balanced.
2008 Gamay noir ($16) – Light, bright strawberry aroma, backed up by a mouthful of strawberry-lemon Jello. Virtually a rose and styled like an old-fashioned pink picnic wine with a bit of sweetness on the finish. If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I would have guessed at carbonic maceration.
2008 Pinot Noir ($16) – Pale tawny peach color, very unusual for a pinot, and suggesting oxidation. Smells strongly of goat cheese and tastes strongly of dried sweet cherries. Very acidic finish with essentially imperceptible tannins.
2007 Pinot Noir Reserve ($25) – Very different in style from the 2008 Pinot, with perceptible oak in the nose and on the palate. Exploding raspberries in the mouth, but with an oaky/smoky rather than acidic/fruity finish. Much less goat cheese.