Turns out that I quoted my lovely wife the other day in an interview with a journalist. For years, Kris has said that Chambourcin tastes like millipedes. In general. Not all Chambourcins, just the ones that are over-cropped (and by that I mean, more than one cluster per shoot.)
Anyway, it turns out, she can smell millipedes in a room. Always has. I know, I thought she was crazy, too. So, we started investigating what millipedes might smell like. Here's a passage from my favorite cloud-sourced knowledge base (Wikipedia):
"Many species also emit poisonous liquid secretions or hydrogen cyanide gas through microscopic pores called odoriferous glands along the sides of their bodies as a secondary defense. Some of these substances are caustic and can burn the exoskeleton of ants and other insect predators, and the skin and eyes of larger predators. Animals such as Capuchin monkeys have been observed intentionally irritating millipedes in order to rub the chemicals on themselves to repel mosquitoes."
Hydrogen cyanide might be one of the secretions that she is smelling. Now, that seems like a toxic chemical, and in no way am I implying that Chambourcin has anything toxic in it. (Although some French authorities and New York's own vinifera pioneer Konstantin Frank used to claim that hybrids caused cancer--a claim that is pretty ridiculous.) We decided to delve into what this "hydrogen cyanide" substance from the millipedes might be. Again, it seems that it only causes minor irritations to humans, and is in no way harmful to humans in any significant way. But then we stumbled upon this (also from Wikipedia):
"HCN has a faint, bitter, burnt almond-like odor that only some people are able to detect owing to a genetic trait." Ah ha! So, my wife isn't crazy, she's just a freak of nature. (Turns out her brother can also smell these creatures.) Me, on the other hand, can't smell the damn things at all.
But it makes me wonder, first of all, if this is actually the compound that she is smelling, and if so is it actually in the wines themselves. And, secondly, is it the part of the wine that people object to (including myself.) Lastly, why is it in low-yield Chambourcins, rose-styles, and port-styles that this flavor profile is less prevalent? I don't know, and I think I may have just added to the mystery of it all. But it does make for an interesting story.
Full-disclosure: I do make Chambourcin as a winemaker, and I make it primarily because it sells. I think it's true calling lie in either a Port or rose-style wine, or perhaps a southern French tank-styled red. I think it's an important part of the grapegrowing landscape in this part of the world, just like it is in Beaujolais where it makes up a lot of the vins de table and vin de pays wines in France.
But when it comes to making a name for ourselves on the world's stage, I think I'll stick with my Cabs and Merlots....