Today’s Wine Word: Botrytis

The mention of botrytis draws very different reactions, depending upon who you’re talking to. 

What is it? It’s rot. It belongs in this year’s harvest vocabulary because there’s lots of it around. 

In my last post I talked about the problems associated with rain and, of course, rot is one of them. Some varieties are more resistant than others: Thin-skinned and tight-clustered varieties are the most vulnerable. We tend to think that tough-skinned varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, will weather a storm quite nicely unless it just goes on and on (which it hasn’t).

However – a friend who grows Cabernet grower told me that she’s had to thin out botrytis in her vineyard so it doesn’t spread. Bummer!

So, there’s that word again. It’s nearly always a bad word, but it does have a place in the world of winemaking. I sent a quick email to Roger Harrison, of RA Harrison Family Cellars, to check with him on his outlook for this vintage. His reply? “I’m the only man in the valley who’s smiling.”

You see, Roger only makes late-harvest, Sauternes-style wine and for that you actually need botrytis! Say what?

Yup! Under the right conditions, it perforates the grapeskins and the grapes start to dehydrate, concentrating the sugar and flavor. And, believe it or not the botrytis, itself, gives the wine a distinctive honeyed character that, once experienced, is never forgotten. 

So, we’re talking exquisite dessert wine in the model of SauternesBeerenauslese or Tokaji Aszu. The varieties best suited to a late-harvest style are always white. I suppose someone out there will prove me wrong but when you get botrytis together with red varieties it usually adds up to an unappealing gray, yucky wine. 

Under the wrong conditions, which is most often the case, you’ve just got a gooey, rotten mess. So, what Roger is doing is a high-risk proposition. But – it’s his calling. And the warm rain we got after the first storm, followed by very dry, sunny conditions is just about perfect for “noble rot”, which is the name we use for botrytis when the planets align properly. 

If you haven’t ever tried a botrytised wine, you really should order a glass next time you’re out to dinner – so wonderful – you can have it instead of dessert! And I can say, unequivocally, that Roger makes one of the best examples around. 

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