So What Is Noble Rot?

This piece, written by David Motion, appeared first in Noble Rot Magazine Issue 10

Noble – aristocratic, classy, of nobility, with breeding
Rot – decay, decomposition, (in speech) rubbish, nonsense, tosh

Noble Rot – aristocratic tosh
Noble Rot – the periodical you are currently reading
Noble Rot – botrytis cinerea, a fungal infection occasionally found on ripe grapes and much prized in the making of sweet wines. Edelfäule German, Pourriture Noble French.

I’m here to focus on the last definition.

Growing grapes is a risky endeavour. As a grower, you might think yourself lucky to have made it successfully through bud break, flowering, fruit set and véraison (the time that grapes change colour). You had enough rain at the right time, no frost or hail at the wrong time. Plenty of sun – but not too much. You have managed to keep the grapes healthy and free from diseases such as oidium and downy mildew through the use of chemicals or biodynamic herbal teas or, even, prayer. Somehow you have managed to keep birds, wild boar and deer at bay – animals uncontrollably drawn by the irresistible aroma of your beautiful, sweet grapes.

It’s not over yet. It might rain. Damp conditions close to harvest could dilute your grapes. Worse still, they could rot and turn your grapes to slushy pulp and you’ll have lost an entire year’s work with nothing to look forward to but an awkward meeting with the Bank Manager.

In some regions, however, there is good rot and bad rot. If wet or damp conditions are then followed by drier weather your grapes might be infected by botrytis – grey mould.

A bunch of grapes affected by botrytis is not something you would instinctively think of putting in your mouth. They are shrivelled and decaying with an unappetising, grey fungal shroud. Botrytis cinerea translates from Ancient Greek and Latin as “grapes like ashes”. Why did anyone think of eating them or trying to make wine with them in the first place?

Although Austria has records of a Trockenbeerenauslese (wine made from shrivelled, raisined grapes) from 1526 and Hungary recorded its first Tokaji Aszú in 1630, there was no romantic legend attached – unlike the Story of the Spätlese Rider.

The Spätlese Rider
In the 1700s, Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau, like most German wine estates at the time, was owned by the Church: the Monastery 200kms away in Fulda to be precise. Coming up to harvest each year, the Schloss had to send a messenger on a horse with a bunch or two of grapes to the Bishop asking for permission to pick. The round trip would usually take one week. In 1775 the messenger was on his way back with the go-ahead from the Bishop when he was set-upon by highway robbers who left him for dead. The days passed. Two weeks passed and, in Johannisberg, the grapes were shrivelling, rotting and being decimated by birds. It was a disaster. Fortunately the rider recovered and finally made it back to Schloss Johannisberg after three weeks. A wine was then made, with heavy hearts, from what was left on the vines. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the results were a succulent, delicious, golden nectar – the finest wine anyone had tasted locally at that time. And so, the Spätlese (late harvest) was born. It turns out that they had stumbled upon the Noble Rot.

Noble Rot doesn’t just show up anywhere. There are locations that seem ideally suited. Places where moisture is trapped and then turns dry and bright. Twisty, narrow rivers such as the Mosel and the Saar in Germany; the Layon, a tributary of the Loire near Angers, or in Sauternes and Barsac in Bordeaux where mist forms between the Garonne and its tributary the Ciron. The pattern is usually an autumnal morning mist burning off by the middle of the day and a bright or sunny afternoon.

It is misleading to assume that everywhere in these zones will be equally infected. The effect can be extremely localised and unpredictable. That said, some parcels are often more susceptible than others. Clemens and Rita Busch, biodynamic growers in Pünderich on the Mosel have some parcels which are regularly affected by Noble Rot. They tend to be low, sheltered from the wind and close to the river. Some parts of the valley are regularly affected; others almost never.

What does Noble Rot bring to the wine?
There are plenty of enjoyable sweet wines made around the world without botrytis; late harvested with healthy grapes, or dried and processed on mats Italian Passito-style. But what makes Noble Rot different? Botrytis sucks out the water, concentrating the sugars, the acidity, the extract – effectively turbocharging the flavours and adding fascinating layers of complexity. Apricots, nuts, peaches, honeycomb, beeswax, marmalade and also earthy notes of truffle. Don’t be surprised to encounter some arresting dark, mushroomy notes – it is a fungus, after all. I often find these darker notes in heavily botrytised vintages of Monbazillac and Saussignac – Bergerac’s finest sweet wines.
As the grapes get drier still (Trockenbeerenauslese), dried exotic fruit notes can creep in; guava, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, coconut.

Why are Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese so expensive?
Low volumes, risk and extreme labour-intensity.
Botrytis sucks an enormous amount of water from the grapes, leaving a tiny fraction of the volume. It is risky leaving bunches on the vines; good rot can turn to bad rot overnight. Growers tend to take a view with one eye on the weather forecast and the other on the condition of the remaining bunches.
Repeated trips into the vineyards (known as Triés in French) are expensive and time-consuming. Bunches deemed to be ready are selected by hand, sometimes partial bunches are picked, the rest left to hang. Not every grape on a bunch is equally affected. Clemens and Rita Busch describe evenings in their kitchen with four people separating individual grapes from bunches often using tweezers and sorting into different pile. The raisins go into the Trockenbeerenauslese pile, the shrivelled botrytised berries into the Beerenauslese box (sometimes in two selections with different levels of Botrytis), golden grapes are placed into a pile which could be used for an Auslese Goldkapsel. The resulting volume tends to fill a demi-john or two rather than a tank or barrel. The sugar is so high that the yeast dies and fermentation stops repeatedly. You often see demi-johns in the warmth of growers’ living-rooms or tasting rooms trying to encourage the golden liquid to continue fermenting very slowly for a year or two. The juice cannot be called wine until it gets up to 5.5% Alcohol.

What are Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese?
Beerenauslese (BA) German, “berry selection” almost invariably made from botrytised grapes – equivalent to Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) in Alsace and the Loire.
Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) German, “dried berry selection” almost invariably made from botrytised grapes that have also naturally shrivelled to raisins before picking.

On one occasion we visited Jo Pithon (the man with the biggest sideburns we had ever seen) in the Coteaux du Layon near Angers. He is a master of sweet, botrytised Chenin. We tasted through his whites from dry to sweet, sweeter and sweeter still, to a diabetic coma-inducing sweetness. Finally he poured a golden liquid onto two spoons for us. “Poured” is not strictly accurate – the liquid was so thick and viscous it had to be encouraged reluctantly from its phial. He called it his “Triple X”. It was Chenin that was still barely fermenting after two years and had only just reached 3% Alcohol; there was still some way to go before it could be called wine.
It was the essence of Chenin and the taste stayed in our mouths for hours.

Even at £100-200 per half bottle, these wines are not commercially viable – these wines are a labour of love.

Looking for botrytised wines?
2006 Rieslings from the Mosel, Saar, Nahe, Rheingau
Growers were shocked by how quickly the Botrytis spread in 2006. The entire Mosel valley was affected within a couple of days. It was very difficult to make dry wines that year but it means there was plenty of sweet wine to go around for a decade at refreshingly affordable prices. Spätlese level and above were all massively botrytised.

1986/88/89/90 Sauternes & Barsac
An amazing stretch of vintages from the 1980s that can still be found.