Frank the Tank provides the monthly wine tips that accompany Tank & Barrel shipments. Frank’s thoughts on wine intrigue, illuminate and interest readers and tie into the monthly offering in your Tank & Barrel delivery. In September, Tank & Barrel shipped Bloemendal wines – two distinct wines made from the same grapes in the same block – one being a straight dry Semillon and the other a Noble Late Harvest of the same grapes. This offering serves as a tangible demonstration on how winemakers can achieve variety through different techniques and styles. For more information about Tank & Barrel or to join and have two brilliantly interesting wines shipped to your door monthly, check out their Facebook page or website to sign up. Below are Frank’s thoughts on Botrytis – the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of fungus.
Ahhhh sweet wines! The domain of the old, the uninformed and the English.
Not so fast, mister! If you get the chance to taste wines, made with the intent to be proper sweet wines, as opposed to the sweetened up go-go juice that lines our supermarket’s shelves; you will realize there is something truly special afoot. A quick note at this stage – we all “talk dry” but our palates are wired to like sweet, it’s Darwinian – look at bees, babies and bears alike: we are all attracted by sweetness and if we are honest, sweet and semi-sweet plonk has introduced more than one of us to the world of wine and is the entry point for many many people around the world. But it’s also too much fun to knock it, so we can’t resist.
Obviously there are a multitude of sweeties out there: Port, Madeira, VDN’s, Noble Late Harvest, Special Late Harvests, Straw Wines, Raison Wines, etc etc… Today we turn our attention to the fanciest of them all: the Noble Late.
A NLH is more than a raisin where pure dehydration has caused an increase in the sugar concentration. Indeed, something far more special occurs here. When the perfect climatic conditions occur, grapes become susceptible to a special fungus: Botrytis cinerea. Throw in misty mornings and warm afternoons and you have the mix you need for this deliciousness-causing fuzz to start growing.
Botrytis goes to work on the grapes by penetrating their skins – this puncturing itself causes a dehydration effect, which is part one of achieving the sweetness.
But Botrytis also forms a few additional chemical compounds during its sojourn on the grapes; these compounds are the reason why Sauternes will differ fundamentally from a wine such as Vin de Constance (which is made from dehydrated grapes, not botrytized).
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might get a fright as these grapes are the least attractive looking grapes you’ve ever seen; they are shriveled up, hairy (literally hairy, due to the botrytis growth) and look like rotting fruit. But the juice they produce is the nectar of the gods – thick, unctuous, sweet to the hilt but with a bracing acidity (acidity levels actually increases due to the Botrytis activity). It takes hours of patient pressing to recover the previous juice. “Recovery” (i.e. yield in juice terms) is in the region of 200 liters per ton; about 3.5 times less than you’d get from normal, non-Botrytis grapes.
Most botrytised wines are matured and aged in barrel, as the juice is naturally quite robust and needs a counterpart to balance its intensity; French oak fits the bill very neatly.
Does this happen year after year? No. Not even in areas renowned for their Botrytized wines such as Sauternes or the Loire Valley. I (Francois) have seen actual proper botrytis on South African grapes all of three times in 15 years, and only once was there enough to justify picking, sorting and turning it into wine, and thus was born the 2013 Bloemendal Noble Late Harvest Semillon. And the rest, as they say, is history.