Botrytis and the Sweet Love

Botrytis cinerea. Just sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. While botrytis can be a destructive pest to almost any form of plant or fruit, under the right circumstances in the vineyard it is an instrumental tool in creating the most wonderful dessert wines. Sauternes from France, Tokaji from Hungary, stickies from Australia, just about every wine producing country in the world makes a botrytis-affected wine. Sweet and spicy, decadent and sublime, poetic and indescribable, botrytised wines can last for decades or more, their virtues evolving and maturing to a point where the words “liquid gold” may be an understated description.

Botrytis cinerea, or Noble Rot as it is called in wine parlance, is a mold that attacks the grape only under very specific circumstances. Alternating periods of dampness from rain, fog or mists must be balanced with periods of sunshine and dryness for the mold to truly take hold. Too much water and grey rot develops, a destructive form of the mold that kills the grapes. Too little water and no mold will form. It is in this balance that Botrytis works its magic. The mold shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugars, acids and flavors. From this very little juice flows, so production is very low. But what does come is a delicious, unctuous nectar that through fermentation releases a golden, honeyed wine full of complexity and delicacy.

The joys of botrytised wines were first discovered in Hungary in the 1600s. Legend has it that due to an enemy invasion harvest was delayed for several weeks. The golden juice practically oozed from the grapes after they were picked, and this concentration of flavors created a wine of unparalleled character. Despite their attraction these wines are still found only in small quantities due to the difficulty in making the wine. Not only do you need the perfect atmospheric conditions, but the grapes shrivel at different rates even in the same cluster on the vine. The best wineries will comb through the vineyards, picking the grapes by hand. Sometimes 8 or 9 trips through are necessary. All this for grapes that produce 5 to 6 times less juice than non-botrytised grapes.

Ah, but the fruits of such labor! Well made botrytised wines garner international accolade and downright giddiness from many a publication. The Wine Spectator recently named the Chateau Rieussec from Sauternes in France as its wine of the year. Originally released at $40 a bottle this wine beat out wines 10 times the price. But don’t take our word for it. Botrytised wines have been revered by kings, Tsars and dignitaries the world over for centuries. Peter and Catherine the Great were said to have kept troops in Hungary to ensure safe passage of the precious Tokaji.

While the alluring combination of sugars, glycerine and acid is the initial attraction to a botrytised wine, it is in its longevity that keeps oenophiles pining for more. Well made Trockenbeerenauslese (TBAs for those that don’t want to say that word three times fast) from Germany can last for decades. Sauternes from the 19th century are still enjoyable today. But no botrytised wine has the long life span as Aszu Eszencia from Tokaji. The Eszencia is only made from the free run juice that seeps from the grapes after harvest. So heavy in sugars and glycerine that it barely ferments, it is said to have no end to its life. Since humans do I guess we’ll have to take their word for it on that one.

While botrytised wines can be very expensive they don’t have to be, and many winemakers in Australia and the United States are producing fine examples at reasonable prices. While some of these wines are produced by artificially inducing Botrytis in a climate controlled room, some are made with the same care as their European counterparts. Houses such as Chambers in Australia and Dolce in Napa Valley make wines of character and grace. A testament to the dedication at Dolce is that on their website they have pictures from a webcam in the vineyard that chronologs the grapes in various states of shrivel on the vine. If you aren’t a true winegeek, proceed at your own risk.

While a dessert wine may be thought of only with the dessert course remember there is probably no more natural a wine pairing than foie gras and Sauternes. The rich and salty foie blending seamlessly with the unctuous and velvety Sauternes. Heaven indeed. Don’t be afraid to try botrytised wines with the saltiness of a quality blue cheese, such as a Stilton. While they can be a wonderful accompaniment to a variety of desserts, they are also wonderful on their own at the end of a nice meal. Perhaps dessert and dessert wine may be too much, but the myriad of spices, flowers and fruits that the complexity of a fine botrytised wine can generate may be enough just as it is.

Author: Sonny Brown
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