It’s said that an untalented vintner can spoil a harvest of good grapes, but the reverse is also true. No matter how skilled a winemaker, it’s next to impossible to turn bad grapes into good wine. The exception? Late harvest sweet wines, (also called dessert wine) are produced from grapes attacked by a fungus, Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, the same fungus that infests strawberries and soft fruits. Grapes left hanging on the vines shrivel and become blanketed with ugly mold. (Consumers would call the board of health if the moldy grapes appeared on supermarket shelves.) But along winemaking’s historical path someone bravely tasted the mold-ridden grapes, surprised by the concentration of sugar. In a case of waste not, want not, the berries were pressed and fermented into sweet wines with enticing flavors and alluring bouquets. Golden-hued sweet wines, including Sauternes from France, Tokaji from Hungary, and German Spätlese made from Riesling,are some of the world’s most coveted. Moscato d’Asti or a Moscato from Napa like the ones produced at St. Supéry are excellent well-priced alternatives. I remember when St. Supéry served a mouth-watering French toast topped with a sauce of orange-flavored Moscato one glorious Napa morning on the winery’s grounds.

My first introduction to grapes infested with noble rot  was at a prestigious Bordeaux vineyard during harvest. I winced at what seemed to be a harbinger of viticultural disaster. Surprisngly, the winery’s owner/winemaker beamed at the harvest touched by Botrytis. Chance plays a  huge part in the development of sweet wines . The erratic arrival of the fungus provides the beneficial conditions for the production of sweet white wines. But  weather doesn’t always cooperate so winemakers who specialize in late harvest wines play a waiting game. While neighbors pick their vineyards clean,  other winemakers hold their breaths gambling on nature to align necessary conditions of ample fog, rain, and humidity to cause unpredictable mold to appear in the vineyard. Mold devours water in grapes causing them to shrivel, producing profoundly sweet juice. In years when Botrytis fails to arrive, an entire vintage goes down the drain. Grapes destined for sweet wine are too far past their peak to harvest for dry wine. But when Botrytis strikes, the yucky, spore-covered shriveled grapes are picked slowly over several weeks, fermented, and aged. The time it takes to pick berry by berry is another reason the wine can be so costly. Fermentation in small barrels or vats for two or three years adds to the cost.

Unfortunately, the American general aversion to sweet wines means a limited audience for the delectable product. One reason may be ignorance about what foods besides desserts are a good match for the wines. They match well with many savory foods, like duck a l’orange, foie gras, chicken or pork in fruit sauce, and surprisingly, intense blue cheese. Dry wine is less appropriate for dishes with sweet components..

The complex elixirs are lip-smacking delicious, worth the price and worth seeking out.  Chateau d’Yquem is generally reputed to top the list of Bordeaux Sauternes. Suduiraut, Its next-door neighbor is excellent.

Read about Sauternes producer Xavier Planty of Chateau Guirard, considered by many to be the best in the region in my book “THE WINEMAKER’S HAND: CONVERSATIONS ON TALENT, TECHNIQUE, AND TERROIR” available on Amazon or through Columbia University Press. The book contains interviews with over 40 winemakers from around the world, and each winemaker talks about the special qualities he or she brings to their wines.





  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: