Today sugar is everywhere, western society is actually at the point where they are trying to get people to cut down on the white powder – sugar tax, obesity epidemic etc. In the past, however, it was a very rare commodity which very few could afford. Crusaders returning from The Holy Land in the 12th Century returned with prizes of ‘sweet salt’. In 1390, sugar would be available at the hefty price tag of two shillings a pound (which equates to about £100 per kilo in today’s prices).
Wine, on the other hand, had long been readily available. The first record of wine manufacturing dates back to 6000 BC with a wine jar and wine press found in modern day Iran. While evidence in writing of the booze first appears in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible; apparently Noah not only built an arc but also made the wine himself.
I wonder what would have been the first reaction of those who tasted a sweet wine for the first time. Two great pleasures combined in one glass. How could the delights of sugar be bottled into such pleasurable nectar, when sugar itself was not widely accessible? In the case of some of the finest sweet wines, the answer is noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea): a grey fungus that affects the grapes.
How does it happen?
Infestation requires moist conditions. If the weather stays wet, the damaging ‘grey rot’ can destroy the crop. For this reason, it needs a very particular climate and the fungus is rare. Noble rot attacks the grapes’ skin causing the water inside to evaporate, leaving behind sugars, flavours and acidity. After pressing the grapes, the result is concentrated nectar so sweet that the yeasts need months to convert to alcohol. Wines produced by this method are known as botrytized wines.
It takes a very specific climate because later in the afternoon the warm sun must clear the fog to enable the grapes to continue ripening. This unsightly grey fungus is the secret to how some of the best sweet wines get their flavour.
After extensive study of wine manufacturing, the stories of how this fungus finds it’s way into wine bottles are still some of my favourites to share with my students. Below are three tales of how noble rot was discovered and how it changed sweet wine forever.
Tokaji Sweet Tokaji
It was 1571 and Hungary was under Turk attack. In the region of Tokaji, some 240 kilometres north east of Budapes. The manager at the famous Oremus vineyard (then in the hands of Prince Rakoczi and today owned by Vega Sicilia from Spain’s Duero Valley) postponed the grape harvest when he got message that the Turks were getting close to the Bodrog River. They fled the region.
When he finally returned to get on with the harvest, the grapes had shrivelled to look like rotten raisins. He decided to press the ugly mush anyway. It must have taken ages to ferment but when it did the wine was viscous and very sweet, with layers of aromas. It tasted like flowers, honey and dried fruit. All these sensations were lifted and transported by the razor-sharp acidity of the Furmint grape. This was the birth of Tokaji Aszú (Aszú meaning ‘dried grapes’) and noble rot had been discovered.
Thanks to Mother Nature
But how can such an apparently awful mush of grapes deliver such an exciting, sweet and complex wine? Mother nature was the genius behind it. The Bodrog River runs south along the region of Tokaji and its southern tip meets the Tisza River. The clash of different temperatures in these two rivers creates an early morning mist. In early autumn this mist rises off the river and moves into the vineyards around the region of Tokaji. As their humidity lands on the grapes and evaporates it causes noble rot.
Prince Rakoczi, a prominent nobleman at the time and owner of the Oremus vineyard, ordered that his noble rot wine be classified as first growths. This was the first vineyard geographic delimitation. About 200 years later the Portuguese would follow suit with their Port in the Douro Valley.
Once Upon a Time in Germany
It was 1775 when another discovery of noble rot took place in the Rheingau wine region in Germany. Schloss Johannisberg, a prominent winery, belonged to Prince Abbot of Fulda. It was about seven days ride from Fulda, and when the courier was sent there to seek permission to commence the harvest, he got delayed by several days. We can’t be sure what caused his delay but there are many versions of his supposed antics.
By the time he returned with permission noble rot had done its job on the grapes. Nonetheless, the cellar master decided to press the grapes. The result? The first Spatlese (late harvest) wine. A sweet wine from the Riesling grape that is naturally high in acidity and helps balance the sweetness of the wine.
1775 marked the beginning of the deliberately scheduled late harvest of botrytized grapes. It provided the platform for what would later turn into German wine law. The classification for quality now depends on the ripeness of the grapes and their fructose content at the time of harvest.
In Sauternes, Bordeaux
Another famous wine produced by noble rot infected grapes is Sauternes. In 1847 the Marquis de Lur-Saluces, who owned Chateau d’Yquem, was returning late from a trip to Russia. Rather stubbornly, he had instructed that harvesting should not begin until his return. Unsurprisingly noble rot had developed when picking finally started. They pressed the grapes and the end product was far better than expected.
The fungus is able to develop because Sauternes lies south of the Graves region, not far from both the Garonne and Ciron rivers. The Landes forest shades and covers the Ciron river keeping it extremely cold. When it meets the warmer waters of the Garonne mist is created that rises above the vineyards of Sauternes and Barsac. This mist again enables noble rot to grow on the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Nowadays the wine comes with a high price tag; a shop in Mayfair is selling Chateau d’Yquem 1811 for £98,000 a bottle. This is because the noble rot infected grapes are picked one by one, as workers pass through the rows of vines several times. They have to dot this as the fungus develops unevenly on this vineyard; in a bunch some are infected and some aren’t. This, coupled with the fact that yields for noble rot wines are very low -a red Bordeaux vineyard yields are 50hl per ha whereas Chateau d’Yquem can be as low as 6hl per ha – contributes to the cost.
When sugar was as rare as white gold, these sweet wines where the toast of the town and the elite drink of kings, queens and emperors. Now, however, they do not have such a fervent following. Today it is the dry wines that swirl sophistication, yet noble rot wine’s rarity, originality and quality has not changed. Perhaps, if we put down the Coca Cola and mounds of refined sugar, this grey fungus would carry favour once more.