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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 18, 2008
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive


I think it’s fair to say that when most people hear the phrase “fungal infection,” positive images are not the first thing to spring to mind.  Rather, I think the average Joe would conjure up associations of disease, pestilence, and the like.  For the vintners of dessert wines however, fungus is their white knight.

     Botrytis Cinerea, (more affectionately known as “Noble Rot”), is a fungus that certain varieties of wine grapes are especially prone to.   In a series of complex chemical reactions, the exact nature of which is still unknown, it shrivels the grapes, concentrates their juices and intensifies their natural sugar content.  The result is a sweet, viscous, nectar-like wine imbibed with underlying floral, citrus, and nutty nuances.  There are other wines in the world which are sweet, but none of them will display the particular richness and depth of flavor of botrytized grapes.  Wines emanating from Noble Rot can be found in California, Germany, and Hungary among others, but it’s in the southern Bordeaux region of France, specifically the appellation of Sauternes (soh-TEHRN), where reputations for world class dessert wines have been forged. 

     The Sauternes region lies about 25 miles southeast of the city of Bordeaux.  Straddled by the Garonne River and its tributary the Ciron, it exhibits a maritime climate.  The dessert wines produced here are quite simply luscious and delicious; but they are expensive; and for real reasons, as opposed to snobbery. 

     Because the grapes’ juices are condensed from the fungus, less actual wine is produced as compared to a non-dessert-wine parcel of land.  Indeed, a same-sized dry, red wine vineyard in Bordeaux will generate five to six times more wine.  So right off the bat the Sauternes wine maker has less product for his efforts.  And, to make matters worse, Sauternes, for reasons to be discussed, is more labor intensive than non-dessert wine.  Thus, one needn’t hold an economics degree to understand that higher costs and less results means higher prices are necessary to make it economically feasible to create the product. 

     The dilemma with making Sauternes is the unpredictability of botrytis.  Each year can bring drastic differences in weather.  Some weather patterns are conducive to wine making and some are not.  This is why vintages are so important.  Under ideal conditions, cool mornings accompanied by mist from the River Ciron encourage the growth of the fungus.  If this is countered by warm, sunny afternoons, the fungus develops but is kept under check.  Not enough damp misty weather or too much warmth/sun and the fungus doesn’t grow or is eradicated.  Conversely, not enough warmth and sun and the fungus goes on a rampage.  Excessive Noble Rot turns to the dark side and becomes Gray Rot which decimates the grapes.  Either way, the risk is that the brunt of one’s crop can be eliminated from vinification, an unrecoverable loss.

     Noble Rot is more prevalent toward the end of the growing season.  As autumn advances the wine maker has a difficult decision to make.  If the fungus has not effloresced, does he harvest his crop and do the best with it he can, or does he hold out and risk losing it all from the eventual winter climate?

     Even when botrytis does develop adequately, it does so in a sporadically irregular pattern.  Unlike other wines, machines can’t mass-pick the grapes because they are not at their peak simultaneously.  They are harvested by hand in repeated stages, as newly infected grapes come to fruition.  This is a painstaking, expensive, and labor-intensive task.  But when all the conditions are right, the results are magnificent.

     Sauternes is made predominantly from Semillon grapes but also Sauvignon Blanc.  Occasionally some Muscadelle is part of the admixture as well.  Sauternes, especially in strong vintages, is capable of aging for decades, even upwards of a century.  Patience will be rewarded with a deeper complexity of flavor.  It should be served chilled but not cold.  Somewhere in the low 50’s is perfect.

     Naturally, because it is sweet, it pairs well with a wide range of desserts, especially fruit tarts, and cream based concoctions like zabaglione and crème brulee.  Some argue however that the pairing of a sweet wine and a sweet dessert can be overwhelming.  Ultimately your own palate will be your guide.  But there are three other ways to enjoy Sauternes.  First, it makes a delightful aperitif.  Second, it complements blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort where the sharp, saltiness of the cheese and the sweet unctuousness of the wine is divine.  But for my money, the ultimate classic is the third:  Foie gras and Sauternes is downright sublime. 

     In 1855 the wines of Bordeaux, specifically the Medoc, the most renowned red wine district, were categorized according to quality level.  Sauternes was the only region outside of the Medoc to be classified.  The best chateaux are placed in one of three tiers.  The rest are not part of the classification scheme.  The three tiers from highest to lowest are: Premier Cru Superieur, Premier Cru, and Deuxiemes Cru.  The highest category, Premier Cru Superieur is occupied by one lone chateau:  Chateau d’Yquem.  Chateau d’Yquem is indisputably the pinnacle of Sauternes.  Situated on superior land and crafted with exceedingly stringent, virtually perfectionistic standards, d’Yquem is the most noble of the Noble Rotters.  Excellence has its price of course.  Bottles of Chateau d’Yquem start in the multiple hundreds and rise from there depending on the vintage. 

     There are many other Sauternes however, that while a little pricey, are still excellent wines that won’t require a home equity loan.  Some of my favorites, (all Premier Cru), include Chateau La Tour Blanche, Chateau Guiraud, Chateau Suduiraut, and Chateau Sigalas Rabaud.  If you are a lover of sweet wine, or even a complete neophyte, you shouldn’t pass through this life without at least trying Sauternes.  Forgoing the experience would truly make life less sweet. 

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online

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