Thursday, June 3, 2010

Noble Rot

Tim’s post about intrinsic beauty got me thinking about situations where things that appear far from beautiful – indeed may be extremely dangerous or unpleasant – may produce something that we regard as gorgeous. There are plenty of examples. I chose one that appeals to me, not least because the name itself reflects the dichotomy – Noble Rot.

"Noble rot" is the term used – in certain circumstances – for the fungus Botrytis cinerea. The name derives from “grapes like ashes”. It’s a mould which attacks a variety of plants and most of the time it is a pest destroying the beauty and health of flowers and fruit. In the case of grapes, persistent damp conditions may cause the spread of the infection, and the fungus attacks and rots the grapes producing a condition called “grey rot” which is exactly as bad as it sounds. No beauty here. Just the opposite. But if the conditions are right, something else happens. If the fungus attacks the grapes but then dries out during the day, the fungus sucks the moisture from the berries and shrinks and shrivels them, concentrating acids, sugars and other solids. Such grapes carefully picked – in some cases one by one rather than bunch by bunch – produce an intense sweet but acid-rich wine with wonderful flavours of marmalade, peaches, apricots and an intense nose hinting of the botrytis itself. Gorgeous. Surprising. Beautiful.

Grapes heavily infested with Botrytis cinerea

Ideally the vineyards should grow in areas where mist comes from a lake or river allowing the infection to develop, but where the sun lifts the damp and the grapes dry. The great botrytis wine growing regions are Sauternes in France, Tokaji in Hungary and the Rheingau in Germany. But other areas produce wonderful examples, particularly Alsace and – yes, you guessed – South Africa.

Given the look of the infected grapes, one has to wonder who could have thought of making wine from them rather than discarding them along with their "grey rot" cousins.

Chateau d’Yquem, the queen of Sauternes estates, claims to have discovered the benefits of noble rot in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since grapes have been grown there since the twelfth century, it did take them a while to cotton on. There are appealing but probably apocryphal tales from other wine areas. According to the Tokaji region, the discovery was due to an invasion of Turks in 1650. Every man was rushed into defence leaving the vineyards to their own devices. In desperation, the affected grapes were harvested and fermented separately so as not to spoil the unaffected ones but in the hope of recovering some of the lost harvest. The results were very satisfactory. The Germans have a similar but less exciting story of a lost messenger carrying approval for the harvest to go ahead. But the same results.


In South Africa we can be more certain of the backstory. It was a German who introduced botrytis wines. Günter Brözel – first winemaker at modern Nederburg - used chenin blanc grapes affected with the mould to make a wine he called Nederburg Edelkeur. It remains South Africa’s premier example of the art. Stanley and I had the pleasure of sharing a bottle with friends from Eichborn publishers in Frankfurt at a delightful dinner there last Thursday. Although being on the doorstep of the Rheingau, they found it quite acceptable.

Nederburg Winemakers - Razvan Macici and Günter Brözel

Michael – Thursday


  1. One of the marvelous attributes of Edelkeur in particular and dessert wines in general is their pairing with breakfast. When we are in the bush, we often go for a game drive at dawn. When we return 4 or 5 hours later, we are usually famished. We immediately prepare a large breakfast with eggs, fried tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, toast and marmalade (preferably lime in my case) and sometimes chips or hash browns. And wash it down with Edelkeur. What a combination! A marriage made in heaven!

  2. Hi Stan,

    that breakfast sounds amazing!

    bye Yrsa

  3. Annamaria AlfieriJune 3, 2010 at 6:51 PM

    It's close to dinner time in NYC, and I am not sure which I would want more, the game drive or the food and wine. (Actually, I know I would go hungry to have the game drive.) Our local wine shop carries a very nice Nederburg dessert wine, which we enjoy a lot. And those South African Chenin Blancs are great even without the "rot." They have become out favorite summer whites.

  4. This post, Michael, brought to mind one of my happiest wine memories.
    Some years ago, when the old La Bonne Auberge still existed in Antibes, and had two stars, we ordered a bottle of 1929 d'Yquem to polish off the meal.
    It was produced with great ceremony, as it should have been, and poured a rich, golden, syrupy yellow.
    It was late at night, the restaurant was about to close, and I offered our waiter a sip of the stuff.
    I don't think he'll ever forget it.
    Certainly, we never will.
    I kept staring at that bottle.
    The year of the great depression, the harvest probably just a little later than the crash, the wine in the bottle for ten years before the Nazis invaded Poland, waiting there all those years just for me.
    And one of the greatest vintages - ever - of the best of the Sauternes.
    I was young enough to be in full possession of my olfactory sense - and old enough to appreciate the significance of I was drinking, knowing full well I wouldn't pass that way again.
    It cost me a fortune - and was worth every franc.

  5. Hi Leighton
    Stanley and I shared a bottle with another friend to mark Stanley's 60th birthday. I can't imagine how the '29 could have been better, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was...


  6. Hi Leighton
    I liked your picture of the infested grapes. I wonder ifd it would be possible fdore me to use it in a book I am writing about soil.
    Best regards

  7. Great wine article. Very interesting to read.