The Sweet Bliss of ‘Noble Rot’
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
My first marketing internship in the wine world was at a state-run viticulture bureau in a little German town along the Rhine River called Oppenheim. I had just moved from the bustling and colorful city of Cologne to spend the remainder of the yearlong program with my new host family. While there, I learned to bumble my way through working and living abroad. True to my intern status, I primarily worked on double-checking files for my bosses, reorganizing filing cabinets, and translating their website from German to English. As riveting as alphabetically filing documents away is, I was excited to be asked to help the educational program with late grape harvesting.
On my first harvest day, I woke up long before sunrise and tried to bundle myself for near freezing temperatures of early November with the few layers of clothing I had and a borrowed pair of gloves belonging to my host mother. (Packing one suitcase for a whole year of fickle German weather was a feat). The brisk morning air kept me awake as I walked my way through the town along its cobblestone roads to the winemaking school. A small gathering of students, professional vintners, and volunteers waited around for everyone to show up. Once all were accounted for, we hopped onto wagons pulled by tractors and made our way to the first site.
We broke off into teams and the novices (including myself) were instructed on how to identify botrytis affected grapes (edelfäule), clip them from the vines, and where to bring them to be weighed and shuttled back to the school. We spent the entire morning going through rows of grapes attempting to grab the perfectly overripe grapes, leaving those not quite there for another harvest time. The process is like marathon: You want to keep a brisk pace, yet still be meticulous. That’s not always an easy task, especially when you’re so new to examining the grapes for the perfect amount of rot and, as the day heats up, you have to keep peeling off layers of clothing.
The botrytis cinerea fungus is a funky mold that attacks many foods, but when it grabs onto white wine grape varietals the mold germination causes evaporation in the grapes (it sometimes looks like a slightly rehydrated raisin). This fungus actually concentrates the sweetness by pulling out moisture and can alter flavors present in wines made with these grapes. Given the right weather ,botrytis is sometimes called “noble rot” as it can produce bold, complex wines that age extremely well due to their high sugar content. Many times, drinkers will note honey, ginger, marmalade, and even chamomile qualities from wines with noble rot grapes.
Depending on whether or not a specific wine is created using only botrytis affected grapes, or with a combination of normal grapes, the resulting wine’s sweetness level can change and can even create dry wines. However, these grapes are notorious for their sweet side and ability to create elegant dessert wines. These are not specific to the German auslese, beerenauslese, and trockenbeerenauslese categorized wines. Regions such as Bordeaux (Sauternes), Alsace (vendange tardive and selection de Grains Nobles), and even the country of Hungary (Tokaji Azsu and Eszencia) produce their own specific wines using these puckered grapes. These noble rot grapes create amazing wines, but that’s not where the conversation ends—these wines can also be phenomenal with foods.
When we think of wine and food pairings there are a multitude of guidelines for perfectly combining the two. One guideline for dessert wines in general is typically that the wine should be sweeter than the food, which means that the person pairing the two has to know, or at least gauge, the sweetness level of both the food and beverage. This can be a difficult thing for novices and is usually easier with gained exposure. Classical pairings for botrytis-based wines tend to be fruitier desserts, like tarts, crepes, or even light pastries as they tend to have similar flavors to one another. However, just because a sweet wine is associated with desserts does not mean that is the only possible pairing. The fattiness of items such as foie gras, pates, and terrines play extremely well to the sweetness of these types of wines. Similarly, these “dessert” wines pair exceptionally well with pungent blue cheeses and delicate, buttery cheeses.
Once you begin to understand the way flavors dance with each other, it’s much easier to get a little playful. I promise that you don’t necessarily have to have personally harvested grapes to get to the point of understanding flavor combinations like this.
To learn more, join Chef Stephanie for her “Pairing Food & Wine Workshop” at Turner Farm on Wednesday, November 14.