Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Noble Rot Makes Sweetest Wine

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Noble Rot Makes Sweetest Wine

Article excerpt

Byline: HELEN SAVAGE

THE best sweet wines are made from the most disgusting, rotten grapes. It takes considerable willpower to put one in your mouth, the kind that's normally reserved for the more horrid challenges designed for celebrities abandoned in the Australian bush with nothing but a television crew for company.

But this is not any old rot, it's noble rot, or to be technical, botrytis cinerea. It forms on fully-ripened, sugar-gorged grapes. It weakens the cell structure of the grape skins so that the water content evaporates, further concentrates the sugars and, by a magic of nature, also raises the acid level slightly. Thin-skinned varieties like Semillon are ideal; the thicker skins of Chardonnay are not.

Top estates, including Chateau Yquem in Sauternes, which makes the world's most expensive sweet wine, employ teams of dedicated pickers who select only the nobly rotten bunches, and even, sometimes individual berries. During harvest, they may visit the same patch of vines six or seven times. Not surprisingly the yield is derisory. A vine at Yquem will produce just a small glass of nectar.

Botrytis does not occur every year. In the baking heat of 2003 in South West France, sweet wine was more often made from raisined rather than botrytised grapes. And a few days of heavy rain can destroy the fragile berries. That's been the fear of growers this autumn.

A little dampness followed by warm autumn sun is needed, but instead, after a magnificent growing season, the latter part of September turned cool and damp. This continued into October, but a return to warmer, more settled conditions has raised hopes. If all goes well, harvest might have begun by the time you read this.

Last year's vintage was a great success. Pierre Carle, who makes delectable sweet Saussignac from botrytised grapes near Bergerac, told me: "The grapes were so ripe they had a potential alcohol of 30%. I decided to add some greener grapes to bring the alcohol down to a potential of 23%, but after 10 months fermenting in barrels, the alcohol has still only reached a little over 10% - and we need at least 11% to enable us to sell the wine as Saussignac."

He's in no hurry and thinks that the wine will eventually reach the minimum strength the local laws demand. His problem is that the yeasts in the wine are overwhelmed by so much sugar, compounded by the fact that an enzyme in the botrytis also inhibits the action of the yeasts in converting sugar to alcohol.

One of his neighbours, and another leading producer of Saussignac, is Patricia Atkinson. Pierre generously suggests that her sweet wine is even better than his own, but they're different and I like them both.

Pierre's is often richer, Patricia's the more elegant. Her 2005 is now available locally at Majestic (pounds 19.99 for 50cl). It's unctuous, magnificent and very sweet, with a smell of butterscotch and barley sugar mingled with fleeting hints of overripe melon, apricot, peach and hazelnut. A bottle of 2005 Chteau Yquem, should you be lucky enough to find it, will cost you a small fortune, but Clos d'Yvigne will give almost as much joy.

The challenge for Sylvain Labardant, who co-owns Chteau Gravelines, just across the Garonne from the vineyards of Sauternes and Barsac, 40 minutes' drive from Saussignac, is to produce high-quality wine at an affordable price. …

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