When it’s good, it’s positively noble. That’s the irony of the fungus called “botrytis.”
“Noble rot” is a more euphemistic term for what is also called “botrytis bunch rot,” caused by a fungal organism (Botrytis cinera) that can grow on ripe or nearly ripe grapes. The unusual thing about botrytis bunch rot is that it can cause either very good or very bad things to happen. (The picture above is of Riesling grapes with botrytis.)
When wine lovers refer to “botrytis,” they usually mean the good form. Under the right conditions, botrytis can affect healthy, primarily white grape berries with delicious results.
If Botrytis cinerea infects grape berries when they are nearly ripe, it can puncture their skin, which causes the berries to partially dehydrate, and at the same time contribute unique flavors. Berries affected by botrytis in this way can produce a rich, sweet wine- hence the name “noble rot”. This taste is referred to as a “botrytized” character.
Botrytis fungus is particularly prized by wineries who make ice wine. It only gets cold enough in a few places in the Pacific Northwest to make true ice wine, where it hangs on the vine until January to pick. Winemakers have concentrated on long hang times and thick skinned grape varieties to allow sugars to concentrate and botrytis to form. The trick is to capture enough of the acidity in the grapes to balance the overwhelming sweetness of something harvested late and ultra ripe.
Botrytis is not all noble. It can be positively lowlife.
In its bad form, Botrytis cinera is known as “grey rot” or “grey mold” This form attacks damaged grapes, spreads rapidly, and significantly reduces yields and quality. This organism can also affect other plants like strawberries, apples, cucumbers, and many ornamental plants as well, but unlike with grapes, there is never a tasty result.
Ice Wine from Oregon, Washington, and Canada
Ice wine is made with botrytized grapes in Oregon and Washington, for the most part using techniques that make it “ice wine style.”
For a great ice wine experience at a reasonable price, you can’t beat the Andrew Rich Gewurztraminer Ice Wine.
Daedalus and Covey Run also make small amounts of ice wine. Canada is famous for its botrytized wines – Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs are two of the best known producers. Here is more information about Ice Wine and a list of available wines.
Pairing Botrytized Wine with Food
Here’s two recipes that go well with a botrytized dessert wine:
Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce
Apple Pear Pie with Ginger