Botrytis cinerea is the scientific name of a fungus or mold which grows on plants in some conditions. When they affect white wine grapes on the vine they live on the skins and have the effect of shriveling the grapes, dehydrating them, in effect turning them to raisins on the vine! But wait! Before you go assuming this is a bad thing, Botrytis is actually cherished by many wine growers and wine lovers as it aids in the production of some of the most amazing sweet white wine styles in the world! So much so that in Europe it is known as "Noble Rot" because of its positive effects on wine.
So what are the effects of Noble Rot on a wine?
Well, as mentioned above, the fungus dehydrates the grapes causing them to shrivel into raisins. As water is the only component lost, this has the effect of concentrating the other components of the grapes, including the flavor and aromatic compounds and sugar. This leaves rich, concentrated grapes with powerful flavor. The Botrytis itself does lend some aroma and flavor as well. When these grapes are then pressed, the resulting juice is dense and concentrated. It is also golden in color and very sweet. When fermented, this typically leaves a wine with considerable residual sugar, so much so that these are typically sweet wine
or "dessert wine" styles.
Which wines are typically made with Noble Rot?
Many of the most famous sweet white wines in the world are made ideally from Botrytis infected grapes. The best wines come from the vintages where the environmental conditions in the growing season encourage the development of the mold. While some wines are made from bunches of grapes with just some affected by rot, the most powerful and sweet wines are made from only those individual grape berries which are most affected. Picking berry by berry is a painstaking and time consuming process and therefore these wines can be quite expensive and rare.
There are several classic sweet wine examples which are typically made from botrytized grapes:
- Sauternes: Probably the gold standard for botrytized sweet white wine, Sauternes is a region in the southwest of France in the general region of Bordeaux. While most of Bordeaux is known for its full-bodied red wines and dry white wines, this small region along with its neighbor Barsac is known pretty much exclusively for sweet white wine made from grapes affected by Noble Rot. The very best wines are picked grape by grape, only using the most affected grapes. These rich, golden sweet wine styles can be glorious and very long lived. One of the most famous sweet wines in the world, and one of the most expensive, is made at Chateau d'Yquem. There are many other great producers such as Rieussec, Suideraut, Climens and others.
- Alsatian Vendange Tardive (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN): Alsace is a region in France near the German border which is famous for its wide variety of white wines made from several grapes including, most importantly, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. While many of the wines are made on the drier or off-dry side of the spectrum, some are made in sweeter styles. The Vendange Tardive wines, literally "late harvest", is made from very ripe grapes and are typically mildly sweet. They sometimes include some grapes affected by botrytis. However, the Selection de Grains Nobles ("selection of noble grapes") is made exclusively from affected grapes picked grape by grape. Small amounts of this nectar are produced and the best can vie with the best Sauternes for the title of best sweet white wine.
- German and Austrian Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA): In Germany, and Austria to some extent, wines are classified based on their level of ripeness and sugar content of the grapes. At the higher end of the scale, the wines are quite sweet. BA wines are picked bunch by bunch including only those bunches affected by Noble Rot. The highest level, the TBA wines are picked berry by berry, only including the best Noble Rot grapes. They are very sweet and tremendously complex and long-lived. The best Rieslings made in these styles are amongst the best sweet wines in the world.
- Vouvray Moelleux and other Loire Stickies: Several areas in France's Loire Valley produce sweet wines from the Chenin Blanc grape. The most famous is Vouvray. While Vouvray is also made in dry and off-dry styles, the late harvested, botrytis affected grapes often make wines called Moelleux. Some of the examples made from exclusively Noble Rot affected grapes can be sublime. For example, Huet's Cuvée Constance, only made in the best vintages, is absolutely stunning. Sweet white wine arguably cannot get any better than this!
- Hungarian Tokaji: For centuries, sweet wine has been made in Hungary from the Furmint grape. The best of these wines, called Tokaji and made with botrytized grapes, can age for centuries. Most of the wines are made by blending in some juice from Noble Rot affected grapes into that from normal grapes. The higher percentage of affected grapes, the sweeter, more complex, more concentrated and long-lived.
How do you serve these wines?
Like many other very sweet wines
, sweet white wines are generally served at the end of a meal as a dessert wine. While they can be served with some lighter desserts they are often enjoyed alone, sipped slowly while relaxing after the meal. One exception is that Sauternes is a classic pairing for foie gras dishes, often served towards the beginning of a multi-course meal. The sweetness of the wine is a perfect foil for the salty, fatty richness of the foie and can be a sublime pairing. Many of the other botrytis affected wines discussed above can serve equally well in this capacity.
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