A Fungus Ascends its Station: Noble Rot and Fine Wine

It has happened to everyone.  You’re going through the fridge, looking for something to eat and you come across a forgotten berry container hiding in the back.  The  strawberries that had looked so appetizing a week before are covered with a light grey fuzz -- but, on the bright side, your vague desire to snack is gone.

This same mold -- botrytis cinerea -- is responsible for some of the most sought-after and long-lived dessert wines the world over.  Like Champagne, the discovery of these wines was reputedly accidental.  Legend has it that in 17th century Hungary, in the region now known as Tokaji, a winemaker preparing for harvest was forced to flee in advance of an enemy invasion.  Weeks later, returning to his vines, he was dismayed to find the fruit rotten.  Having no other options, he decided to make wine anyway.  The result was deeply golden, sweet, and beguilingly complex.  This unique wine quickly became a subject of curiosity throughout Europe.

It is a special people who encounter wine made from moldy grapes and, instead of recoiling, embrace it to the point of claiming to have discovered it.  The French are such a people.  After all, they are no strangers to the flavor-enhancing potential of mold; Roquefort cheese was already being made for hundreds of years.  And they were also savvy marketers.  Trying to sell moldy, stinky cheese?  Call it a bleu.  Similarly, when making expensive wine from rotten grapes, grant the rot a title of nobility.  This is how botrytis cinerea became synonymous with the term pourriture noble -- translated as noble rot.

In addition to offering complexity, botrytis bears some negative commonalities with nobles as well; it is capricious and demanding.  If it arrives early, botrytis plays the spoiler, putrefying bunches of grapes and potentially ruining a vintage.  However, with conditions just so -- a daily recurrence of misty mornings followed by sunny afternoons --  botrytis can be a benevolent guest.  These weather conditions are unique to few areas of the world.  Lucky for the French, they have several of these areas, including the one that is arguably the best -- Sauternes.  There, the warm waters of the Garonne river intersect with the cool, spring-fed waters of the Ciron tributary, and as the air temperature cools in autumn, the region becomes a haven for noble rot.

Not to be satisfied with climate control alone, this noble form botrytis further complicates matters by taking a lackadaisical and erratic path towards inhabiting the vineyard.  With each grape, the botrytis pierces small holes into its skin, consuming water and acids within, concentrating the sugars and forming new compounds that will add complexity to the finished wine.  What this means for the winemaker is a painstaking harvest where individual berries are plucked, by hand.  The process must be repeated numerous times for weeks, or even months, to ensure optimum quality.

With all of these exacting and laborious requirements, it is easy to see why botrytised dessert wine, as it is called, can quickly get expensive.  However, only the finest houses -- notably Chateau d’Yquem in Sauternes -- can consistently marshal the resources necessary to ensure that every grape is rotten to perfection.  Other chateaux and regions make do with fewer passes through the vineyard, but these wines still showcase the effects of botrytis.  If you’re interested in trying a botrytised wine, keep an eye out for Monbazillac, a region near Sauternes, which offers a similar style but often better value.  Oh, and if you’re looking for a good pairing, try Roquefort.  Delicious.