Botrytised wines are a great testament to man’s ability to make lemonade, when handed a sack of lemons. The word, botrytis, will make any landscaper or farmer cringe because it’s a form of rot that isn’t specific to grapes, alone. Yet, in the wine world, under the right circumstances, it’s known as the “noble rot”. Ice wine or eiswein, is nearly the equal of botrytised wine when it comes to strange beginnings.
You might wonder why anyone would make wine from rotten grapes in the first place. If we’re to believe the romantic stories from Hungary, France and Germany, the greatest sources of these wines, necessity was the mother of invention, once again.
The first botrytised wines, that we know of, were made in Hungary, in 1650. As the story goes, the wine harvest in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region was delayed because of an impending attack by the Turks. By the time they finally picked the grapes they’d rotted – if you saw these brown, fuzzy clusters, you’d know it was an act of desperation or extraordinary courage to attempt to make something palatable out of them. However, in the end, they were delighted with the actual result and before you know it the sweet Tokaji Aszu was the wine of the French and Russian nobility. This legendary wine is of such great significance, to the Hungarians, that it is mention in the national anthem!
The Germans have a similar story but, in this case, human error, or negligence, are the catalysts. They say that the harvest of 1775 at the venerable winery, Schloss Johannisberg, in the Rheingau, was delayed because a message from the Prince-Abbott granting permission to harvest never got to the estate. As time went by, the vineyard was increasingly infected with botrytis, yet the wine they made was extraordinarily delicious.
Of the three best known, and loved, styles of botrytised wine, Sauternes has the greatest name recognition, yet came along last. The famous benchmark producer, Chateau d’Yquem, claims to have “discovered” what they came to call the noble rot in 1847. Those who’ve had the privilege of tasting even older vintages believe that these great wines, most certainly, had at least a touch of botrytis.
Similar styles have been made for a long time in other regions, such as the Loire Valley, Alsace and Austria. More recently they’ve come to the new world.
What is botrytis? The noble rot, botrytis cinerea, is the same as ordinary grey rot or bunch rot. The word, cinerea, refers to the ash-like appearance on grapes that have gone from gold, to pink or purple, and, finally, to a shriveled light brown.
The timing and weather conditions make the difference between a crop that’s completely devastated and the opportunity to produce something superlative. Consistently cool, weepy conditions are the recipe for a gray, gooey, disgusting mess, no matter the timing. If the spores attack under-ripe or damaged grapes, most likely their skins will split and the grapes will be irretrievable.
However, if as little as one spore lands on a ripe cluster at a time when Mediterranean conditions prevail – cool, misty mornings followed by warm, dry afternoons – rather than go to mush, the spores spread and the grapes begin to dry out. The afternoon heat and drying is absolutely essential in making the difference between noble rot and liquefied goo. Wind helps things along, too. The rot, itself, punctures the skins which, conveniently, speeds up the desiccation and things begin to look promising! These wines are nearly always produced in regions near lakes or rivers.
Any white grape variety is a candidate for botrytis, but some varieties are more susceptible than others. As you might imagine, compact clusters, with tightly packed berries are the best bet. If red varieties are attacked, it’s very unfortunate because the flavors go off and the wine turns an unappealing gray.
When it’s time to harvest, this becomes a very labor-intensive project because the botrytis doesn’t, necessarily, spread evenly and multiple passes through the vineyard, taking portions of clusters, or even individual berries, will yield the most memorable wines. The pickers take the rotten grapes and leave the good ones, hoping that they’ll rot eventually. You can imagine the confusion of the picker who’s faced with this sort of crop for the first time! In some cases the pickers and sorters need to differentiate noble rot from outright gray rot within the same cluster.
The winemaker goes into this knowing that his yields will be ridiculously low, since the grapes are practically dry. The highest allowed yield in hectoliters per hectare, in Sauternes, for instance, is 25, where in the rest of Bordeaux the regulations allow as much as 50 to 65. Chateau d’Yquem claims they get only nine.
Pressing dehydrated grapes is no picnic. The driest of the grapes may not yield any juice at all until they’ve been through the press two or three times. And, unlike the wine world in general, the last of the pressing is often the best wine because it’s the sweetest and has the highest concentration of sugar and flavor. This is assuming that the pressing hasn’t taken so long that the juice has become oxidized.
Fermentation is slow-going, too, and likely to get stuck before completion, because the yeast has to work in a hostile solution that’s low in nutrients and high in sugar and antibiotics. The winemaker also needs to maintain a relatively high level of sulfur dioxide, throughout the entire process, because the juice is prone to oxidation. The sulfur is another menace to the yeast. In some cases the fermentation ends naturally and, in others, the sulfur is increased enough to stop it at the desired degree of sweetness. Malolactic fermentation is not, generally, considered a good idea and barrel aging depends upon the style.
Below, is a summary of some of the most popular styles.
Like most French wine, Sauternes is named for the region it comes from, which is actually a sub-region of Bordeaux. There are five communes in Bordeaux that make wine that can be called Sauternes but, for most of us, the Sauternes, proper, and Barsac, its neighbor just across the climatically significant Ciron River, are the only familiar names. The others communes are called Bommes, Fargues and Priegnac.
These are big, luscious, honeyed wines that are very easy to love. They’re quite sweet, often in the 8-12% sugar range, and they have a generous amount of alcohol, with a required minimum of 13%. It’s common to see 14%.
Semillon has the greatest susceptibility to botrytis, so it’s the mainstay variety, commonly accounting for about 80% of the blend. Sauvignon Blanc is important because it often shows botrytis earlier than the Semillon and adds zippy acidity to the sweet wine. Fragrant Muscadelle is an approved variety that’s frequently ignored.
As is typical, in botrytised wine production, the wine is made of select clusters, portions of clusters and individual grapes that were harvested over multiple passes through the vineyard.
On difficult years some producers have taken to borrowing a technique from ice wine producers and put the grapes into a freezer before pressing them. For instance, if the grapes are plumped up after rainfall, the idea is that the frozen juice of the less-ripe, or watery, grapes will stay in the press rather than dilute the rich, honeyed juice that’s squeezed out of the shriveled, botrytized ones.
Myron Nightingale, of Beringer fame, actually eliminated the vagaries of climate and conditions by inoculating Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes with botrytis spores in the lab to produce a very pure expression of the style. The wine is called Nightingale.
A classic Sauternes style is, typically, barrel fermented, then barrel aged at least a couple of years. It can live for a very long time, so it’s a great option when you’re cellaring wine for a distant, grand occasion.
It makes a wonderful dessert in itself, but, the traditional pairing is foie gras and the French enjoy it as a first course! It’s also a great counterpoint to blue cheese and delectable with crème brûlée or a nut tart.
There’s quite a bit of name confusion when it comes to Tokaji. Some say Tokay, others, Tokaji (toke-eye-ee). When an Australian says Tokay, he may actually mean Muscadelle. In Alsace it was common to call Pinot Gris, Tokay d’Alsace (no relationship) and the Tocai Friulano of northeastern Italy has nothing to do with Tokaji. What a mess!
But, now, as Tokaji Aszú makes its comeback, it’s increasingly safe to assume Tokaji or Tokay refers to the ancient dessert wine of Hungary.
It’s often called the Sauternes of eastern Europe, which may sound backward, given the history of the regions. It’s almost a miracle that this wine exists at all, now, because it suffered so many severe setbacks. This may explain why many of us have heard of it, but most of us have never had the pleasure of tasting it. It started with the phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s. As the region struggled to replant and recover, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell, followed by World War One and World War Two. What appeared to be the final blow, the Communist take over in 1949, meant the industry was nationalized. The mass-produced wine called Tokay had little in common with the nectar-like wine of its glory days. Fortunately, those delicious days were not forgotten and when Hungary became a republic, in 1989, an impressive number of wine experts and investors stepped in to bring back the exquisite wine of Tokaji.
Dry wines are made in the region, too, in fact only about 10% of the wines in Tokaji are the ones that made it famous. If the wine is called Tokaji Aszú, then you know it’s the botrytised example – aszú means dried. The varieties are unfamiliar to most of us, except for Muscat Blanc. The Furmint grape is planted all over Hungary and is very susceptible to botrytis. It makes tart, citrusy dry wine and is the main grape for the Aszú. The honeyed, spicy Hárslevelü grape is important to the blend and there may or may not be a bit of the floral Muscat added in.
The winemaking is quite unusual. First, a dry, non-botrytized “base wine” is made. Later, either Aszú berries or a pressed “paste” or “dough” of the berries, as they call it, is added. Traditionally the quantity is measured in puttanyos or “putts”. The more putts per barrel, the sweeter and richer the wine. For instance, if the label says three puttanyos, the wine is about 6% residual sugar – quite sweet. Six puttanyos and you have a wine that’s even sweeter than a typical bottle of Sauternes, about 15% sugar! Like Madeira, the wines don’t taste nearly as sweet as the numbers indicate because of a bracing acidity.
After a number of hours, or a few days, the wine is drained and lightly pressed away from the paste, or berries, and another fermentation begins, typically in new Hungarian casks. This takes months because of the cold cellars and high sugar, which inhibit the yeast. The wine is cask aged at least two years followed by another year of bottle age.
Tokaji looks like no other wine. It’s a startling, almost electric-orange color! It’s often sweeter than Sauternes, but it’s quite refreshing because of its high acidity. Just like Sauternes, this wine is delicious with salty blue cheese or savory foie gras. It’s also delicious with rich, fruity and creamy desserts.
German sweet wines
Germany is famous for its sweet wines but, like most regions, most of the production is dry. The wines are remarkably graceful and elegant – very light on the palate – because they’re low in alcohol. But, don’t mistake weight for flavor concentration. These sweet wines can be thrilling in their intensity and in their balance of sweetness to acidity. Riesling is the shining star of Germany and dominates the best regions.
This is as far north as you want to go for wine – global warming is actually working in their favor and they’ve had a lot of good vintages in recent years. But, because attaining ripeness can be a challenge, the wines are classified accordingly.
Interpreting German wine labels is frustratingly difficult, so we’ll err on the side of simplicity, here. Start by looking for the letters QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) on the label. This will prohibit sugar additions so you have a much better shot at getting ripe flavors. From there, for the sweet wines, you’ll probably want at least an Auslese. Those who speak German will wonder “What about Spätlese? That means late harvest!” Well, a late harvest in Germany means that you have a candidate for a tasty dry wine with good flavor intensity, adequate alcohol and acidity that isn’t painfully high. The wines may or may not be sweet and aren’t, likely, botrytised.
When the label says Auslese, it translates as “selected harvest” and, in this case, selected means bunch selected, which is a costly practice. Now, we’re getting into wines that are more often botrytised and probably sweeter than spätlese. But, there’s no regulation regarding wine sweetness, just degree of ripeness.
Beerenauslese means “selected berries”, but may also consist of selected bunches of, almost certainly, botrytized grapes with harvest sugars of between 25 and 30%. The wines are predictably low in alcohol so a considerable amount of the sugar will remain in the wine. This is a honeyed, raisiny delight. Compared to Sauternes, with the low alcohol, these wines are light as air, yet incredibly intense in flavor.
Trockenbeerenauslese, or TBA, is the big daddy of them all. Trocken means dry – not in reference to the wine – it’s the state of the grapes due to botrytis. This is a rare treat that’s not produced on a regular basis and the minimum sugar at harvest is 35%. It’s expensive because it takes multiple passes through the vineyard to get the most shriveled, thoroughly rotten grapes possible. As the juice gets sweeter and sweeter, the yeast has an increasingly difficult time doing its job and these sweet wines are often down around 6, 7 and 8% alcohol.
Eiswein (Ice Wine)
Eiswein is a relatively recent wrinkle in the fabric of winemaking and the first evidence of someone setting out to make wine from frozen grapes dates back to the 1960s, in Germany. The idea is to pick the very sweet, frozen grapes and press them while frozen so that the watery juice is tossed out as ice crystals leaving the winemaker with a very small amount of juice that’s remarkably high in sugar, acid and flavor.
Harvest may be in November, December or even after the new year. The grapes have probably frozen and thawed several times before there’s a hard enough frost for the style – typical harvest temperatures are below 20 degrees F! If the grapes are harvested in January or February the vintage date goes back to the growing season.
From Germany, the practice spread to Austria and Canada and, in recent years, the three countries have forged an alliance designed to uphold the traditional methods of producing ice wine. The intention is to forgo shortcuts such as putting the grapes into an industrial-sized freezer or putting plastic sheeting out to prevent rain, birds, bears and boars from destroying the crop before it has a chance to freeze!
Canada has the most stringent sweetness requirements – the pressed juice must be a minimum of 35% sugar. In Germany, the requirements are aligned with those for Beerenauslese, which brings up the question of noble rot. The classic ice wine isn’t botrytised, but there’s no regulation against it and it will probably vary with the vineyard location and the vintage.
Riesling is the most commonly used variety for the style and, in Canada, they’ve had very good luck with the French-American hybrid, Vidal.
Expect very rich, ethereal wine, about the sweetness of a Beerenauslese.
Aging the Wines
Any of these sweet wines may be cask aged, but it’s barely a topic when it comes to German whites or ice wine. The aging is often done in large, rather old vessels, so there’s no noticeable oak flavor. The Canadians offer ice wines that are aged briefly in small cooperage, along with the non-oaked examples, and these wines will show more vanilla and spice.
When it comes to bottle aging, acid and sugar are very good preservatives and these wines can often be aged quite extensively and manage to become richer while hanging on to their crisp liveliness.
Pairing Sweet German Wines and Ice Wines with Food
When you’ve splurged on a bottle of Beerenauslese or ice wine you may be tempted to showcase it, by serving it unaccompanied, and no one will complain! If you want to introduce food, few can resist the combination of sweetness and salt, so don’t hesitate to bring out the salted nuts! These wines can stand up to virtually any cheese, including blue cheese and triple cream. They’re delicious with fruit desserts and the crisp acidity is a great foil for creamy desserts like crème brûlée. Whether it’s Sauternes, Tokaji or the German styles, a little goes a very long way and a half bottle will serve four very nicely. Cheers!