— by Chris Hammacher
“Sweet, rich-textured, flower-scented and smooth.” For many of us, this may cause us to think of sweet fruit-flavored wines, White Zinfandel, or even box wines just to name a few. We would not be wrong. What if I said those same characteristics also describe one of the most enjoyable wines in the world? Oh, and by the way, it is rare, sought after, revered and deliciously sweet.
Now, let us add the fact that the reason this wine is so well known and has those characteristics is not because the winemaker purposely adds sugar or infuses additional flavor, but rather it is due to a fungus that grows on the grapes. One question…would you care to drink a wine purposely made with fungus? The fungus is called Botrytis Cinerea, also more commonly known as “noble rot.”
The botrytis forms during mild misty evenings and then multiplies when the days become hot. The fungus does not convey a “rotten” taste to the grapes but instead it helps to release almost all the water from the grapes. By doing so, it leaves the grape skin container filled with sugar, acids, and flavor components. The small amount of juice that does remain is more concentrated than ever. The producers that choose to make this wine must wait for this process to occur and finish, then harvest immediately. Their window of opportunity is a very narrow one, since normally too much humid weather quickly follows and will turn the noble rot to grey rot, and all would be lost.
If all the stars align and growing conditions are optimal, the wine that is made from this botrytis is truly remarkable and has the potential to be one of the longest-living wines in the world, able to be cellared for nearly half a century. The two most well-known regions for these wines are Sauternes and Barsac, both in France. The crème de la crème, the pinnacle of these wines, quite literally, “the gold standard” is Chateau d’Yquem and it hails from Sauternes. It was given the title of Premier Cru Supérieur back in 1855 during the Classification of Bordeaux wines, the only Sauternes to this day to hold that title. However, there are many great producers of these wines at reasonable prices. I would encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try one with appropriate food matches.