Erik Neilson on January 29, 2017 1 Comment Say the word “Botrytis” out loud, and chances are you’ll agree that it sounds unsavory. Once you find out that it’s a mold, the word becomes even less appetizing. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that this strange organism is responsible for some of the world’s best wines, many of which sell for extremely high prices. Just as one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, Botrytis contains a silver lining, and modern wine wouldn’t be the same without it. You may have never heard of Botrytis, but if you’ve been paying attention to wine for a while, you’ve likely heard of something called “Noble Rot”. Take comfort in knowing that they are one in the same. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon and how it’s capable of transforming wines. What is Botrytis? It’s easy to assume when hearing a word like “Botrytis” that the conversation is about to get unbearably dull and confusing, but rest assured that this is a relatively easy topic to understand. At its very core, Botrytis is nothing more than a simple form of mold. It is, however, a very picky form of mold that only attacks grapes under specific circumstances. In order for Noble Rot to form, periods of damp weather must alternate with extreme sunshine and dryness. These conditions allow the mold to thrive, while too much moisture would create undesirable grey mold, and too little moisture would create no mold at all. Why is Botrytis prized by certain winemakers? It causes the grapes it affects to prematurely shrivel-up, which results in concentration of flavors, acids and sugars. As one might expect, the effects of Botrytis mean much lower yield, but the juice that ends up being harvested is of extremely high quality and can be used to create delicious, mysterious wines. Common Characteristics of Noble Rot Botrytis can affect a wine in a number of different ways, but there are a handful of characteristics that are commonly found across the board in Noble Rot-affected wines. One is a marked ramp-up in overall sweetness, especially when comparing a grape with the same varietal that hasn’t been affected by the mold. Because Noble Rot causes dehydration in the grape without affecting its ability to maintain its sugar levels, the end result is juice which has a higher sugar content than normal. This is why many dessert wines are made utilizing grapes that have undergone the process of Noble Rot, as they tend to be sweeter and more tolerant of a higher alcohol content. It’s not just sweetness that comes out of Noble Rot, however — it’s flavor. Specific flavors, too, which can work to really change the overall profile of certain grapes. Perhaps as an addendum to the sweetness provided by Botrytis, wines affected by Noble Rot are often considered to be “honeyed,” which also speaks for the viscosity of many of these wines. Gingersnap-type flavors are not at all uncommon, nor are hints of oxidized lemon and distant citrus notes. While all of these flavors exist across the grand spectrum of wine, it is the fact that they can be imparted on different grapes that makes Noble Rot so unique. Styles of Noble Rot Wines For the average wine drinker, searching for Noble Rot-affected wines can be a bit of a challenge, especially when you consider the fact that many producers purposefully leave this information off the label. For this reason, it helps to have an understanding of the different styles throughout the world that commonly utilize grapes with Noble Rot. The most well-known is likely Sauternes, which hails from Bordeaux, France. A blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle that have been affected by Botrytis, Sauternes is an exquisite dessert wine that is currently making quite a comeback in France, America and the rest of the world. It’s thought that Noble Rot was first introduced to winemaking in Hungary during the 16th century, and these grapes are still being utilized today to create a wine known as Tokaji Aszú. Sweet and containing a good deal of residual sugars, Tokaji Aszú is one of Hungary’s most prized wines and speaks volumes for the region’s terroir. This dessert wine is typically available in 500ml bottles, which can sell for between $50 and $90 depending upon the producer. Clearly, Noble Rot wines aren’t cheap, but the huge amount of work that goes into bringing them to fruition helps to explain why. While Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú are the two most popular Botrytis wines, they’re not the end-all, be-all. Germany is known for two wines that are affected by the fungus: Trockenbeerenauslese and Beerenauslese, both of which can be divine. Head to the Loire Valley of France, and you’ll no doubt encounter three wines that fit the Botrytis bill: Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon. Not far away in Alsace, Vendage Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles bring Noble Rot to the party. Even Australia and California wineries are beginning to make use of grapes that have been affected by Botrytis, and experimentation has led to new concepts of how these types of grapes can be utilized in winemaking. Bottles to Try There’s no better way to gain an understanding of Noble Rot than to experience first-hand the types of flavors it can lend to a wine. Here are a few bottles to check out: Château Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos An excellent Tokaji Aszú if there ever was one, Château Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos is loaded with honey, sugared barley, peach and acid. It’s an incredible dessert wine that would go wonderfully with flan or simply on its own. And at $50, it’s about as reasonable as a Tokaji Aszú of this quality gets. Château d’Yquem Sauternes Château d’Yquem Sauternes bursts with acidity, showcasing Botrytis in the form of oxidized lemon and lime. Citrus and vanilla find their way into the fold, and the finish is surprisingly sweet without being cloying, allowing minerality to do the driving. A must try Sauternes. Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat Riesling Stylistically a Trockenbeerenauslese, Dr. Loosen Erdener Prälat Riesling takes its best characteristics straight from the Botrytis mold. Fruity and spicy with a pronounced earthiness, it’s a unique take on Riesling, and one that is likely to win over many converts. Botrytis wines are a unique frontier that’s gaining traction in the industry. Start with one of the suggestions above, and enjoy the ride.