Moldy grapes produce some of the world's best dessert wines.
It’s sometimes said that the first person to eat a tomato was the bravest person in culinary history: same goes for the first person to milk a cow, and the first to chow down on raw fish. In the world of wine, there’s a similar origin myth: the first winemaker to use grapes infected by fungus. No one knows for sure when the practice first began, but the first clear mention of wine made from fungus-infected grapes dates to around 1576.
The fungus in question is Botrytis cinerea, a necrotrophic fungus that affects grapes and other plant species and in the world of horticulture is simply called “gray mold.” In wine grapes, this fungus can result in two types of infection: one malevolent, the other benevolent. Gray rot occurs in consistently damp conditions and is harmful, while noble rot, or pourriture noble, develops when damp conditions are followed by a dryness that partially raisins the grapes. Gray rot typically kills off the grape bunches, while noble rot can result in some of the world’s most exquisitely delicious and distinctive sweet dessert wines, such as French Sauternes or the Aszú of Tokaji. Noble rot partially dries the grapes, removing water from the flesh, leaving behind a higher percent of solids, such as sugars, minerals and fruit acids. This results in a more intense, concentrated grape. When turned into wine, the result can be a sweet, intensely flavored wine with the potential to develop in the bottle for decades.
Botrytized wines are made wherever the local conditions permit the fungus to develop beneficially. Harvesting is usually done entirely by hand, sometimes grape by grape, with multiple passes through the vineyard. The fungus complicates fermentation, since it produces a compound that kills yeast, and the overall yield at harvest per acre is much less than conventional wines because the grapes are partially dehydrated. All these factors contribute to the high prices of botrytized wines, so it is very common to see them offered in more affordable half bottles.
A few châteaus in Sauternes—the region within Bordeaux where the most famous of these dessert wines are produced—create kosher versions. While not for every palate (or wallet), the kosher Château Guiraud Sauternes 2001 ($150) is simply extraordinary. Creamy, honeyed and full-bodied, it expresses aromas of butterscotch, apples and vanilla which mingle within lush layers of apricots, peaches, baking spices and orange citrus acidity. The intense sweetness, concentrated flavors and ideal balance last throughout the extended finish, making this one of the world’s finest kosher dessert wines.
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