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Botrytised Dessert Wines: Part 1, The Alchemy Process!

After the sublime experience of imbibing De Bortoli’s Noble One Botrytised Semillon 2006 at our wine tasting dinner last week, I was keen to learn more about how these magical botrytised dessert wines, which had delighted Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, are made.

Possibly one of the most intriguing aspects of botrytised wines are the grapes used in their production. They are infected by noble rot – a fungus that attacks the fruit, absorbing water and shriveling the skins. The grapes look bloody awful but the best give forth an amazing liquid that has been described as nectar for the gods!

The most acclaimed botrytised wines are the French Sauternes and in particular the ethereal wines of Chateau D’Yquem, the only Sauternes to be recognised as Premier Cru Grande Superieur (Great First Growth) in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855.

The climate of the tiny Sauternes appellation is the key ingredient: early-morning moisture late in the growing season engenders the development of mould on the grapes, activating dormant spores of Botrytis cinerea. Providing the mists evaporate each day, drying out the vines and their fruit, the mould will tend towards noble rot rather than the soddy grey rot, which happens if the weather stays too damp. The noble rot  desiccates the grapes one-by-one, concentrating the sugars as the water evaporates without developing any off-putting, mouldy flavours, and, in fact, contributing an appealing flavour all of its own.

The best Sauternes are generally made from two grape varieties: semillon,and sauvignon blanc.  At Chateau d’Yquem, the grapes are picked by hand at least six times during the harvest season to ensure that only the botrytised grapes are selected.

In general, great Sauternes are characterised by their complexity, balance, opulence, vibrancy and a relatively high acidity that helps to balance the wine’s sugar levels. Typically they exhibit fresh and intense aromas of fresh and exotic fruits – oranges, lemons, apricots, mango and pineapple – complemented by the honeyed elegance of the botrytised fruit. The finish is wonderfully creamy  and the wines have a pleasurable aftertaste that lingers and develops on the palate. They are also distinguished by their longevity with the best lasting decades or longer.

No discussion of botrytised wines would be complete without mentioning Hungary’s Tokaji Aszu, which are made from Furmint, Hárslevelú and Yellow Muscat grapes. The Wine Advocate’s Neil Martin believes that Tokaji Aszu is one of the greatest wines in the world. (It can only be Tokaji: A Royal Shoo-In by Neil Martin, eRobertParker.com, February 2010)

In the 19th century Tokaji Aszu was more famous than the celebrated Chateau D’Yquem. It was a favourite of Queen Victoria, who was always received it on her birthday. Also popular at the Vatican, where it was admired for its restorative powers, Pope Benedict XIV apparently kept a stash by his bedside table.

Over the past 20 years, the wine style has experienced a renaissance due to the Hungarian Government’s relaxation of Communist era red-tape, which has encouraged foreign investment in vineyards and wineries.

The most famous producer is the Royal Tokaji Company, which makes the coveted Tokaji  Essencia, the richest and rarest of all Hungarian Tokaji Aszu wines. The elusive juice for the Essencia seeps out in miniscule drops from the base of the hand-picked and hand-selected Aszu (bortrytised) grapes as they are being stored. The juice is collected in glass jars, and the alcoholic fermentation takes place spontaneously and very slowly (between 6 to 8 years) in 100% glass jars.

The more affordable Tokaji Aszu wines are a mix of Aszu paste with a fermented base wine. The best spend 8 to 10 years maturing in oak before bottling.

Orange in colour, Tokaji Aszu is typically more tangy and sharper than Sauternes due to its naturally higher acidity, which prevents it being dominated by extremely high sugar levels. Flavours of honey, dried apricot, Seville orange marmalade and hints of butterscotch balance the citrus acids.

A  hallmark of the style is the pleasurable aftertaste. In Martin’s opinion, “Tokaji Aszu seems to permeate the pores of the sensory palate deeper than any other, it lingers long after the Tokaji has been swallowed and yet the mouth stays fresh, revived even, once again, due to that all-important racy acidity and tanginess.”

Very fine botrytised wines is also made The Loire (Vouvray) in France, Germany, Austria and Australia. Part 2 of this article will look at the best Australian wines in this style.

Photo Credit: winedoctor by Chris Kissack. The winedoctor gives an excellent and detailed description of how sweet wines are made.

5 Responses to Botrytised Dessert Wines: Part 1, The Alchemy Process!

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