Editors note: A while back, I called upon the powers of Craigs List to find myself some help. We wanted to cover more wines, more regions, and to have some different perspectives here on Catavino. This week we’re showcasing a couple of articles from two of the most qualified respondents, and if all works out, you’ll be hearing more from them as we continue to move forward. Today Adrienne Smith, who lives here in Madrid, has a short note on Noble Rot! Let her know what you think of her story. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be introducing our new writers more formally, so stay tuned!
If there were ever two words that I never expected to see together they are noble and rot. Notwithstanding, this is the nickname for the fungus Botrytis Cinerea which can attack grapes, covering them with a gray mold and strangely, sometimes making us jump for joy. Much in the same way that someone discovered that you can eat an artichoke, or that meat tenderizer takes away a jellyfish sting; someone one day discovered that under the right conditions this noble rot could be the impetus for the production of many of the world’s great sweet wines, such as the French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokajis. In years when there is too much humidity, this fungus can quickly extend through a vineyard, covering the grapes with a gray mold, and ruining the harvest. However if the process begins and the weather stays dry and warm, it can take place very slowly, and this fungi foe-turned-friend will penetrate and shrivel the skins of grapes using up all of the water in the juice. This causes the sugars, flavors, and acids to concentrate, ultimately resulting in complex, unique and sweet wines.
There are some grape varieties that are especially good at withstanding or rather experiencing noble rot, known as podredumbre noble in Spanish. They tend to be white grapes such as the Semillon, Sauvignon, and Chenin varieties used to make the Sauternes in France, or the Riesling variety in Germany.
In Spain however, the tradition of noble rot wines is not as extended. Frankly, I have only heard of it with Moscatel grapes, and I’ve heard that Bodegas A Tapada in Galicia, D.O. Valdeorras, introduced a podredumbre noble version of their famous Guitián wine, made with Godello grapes, although I haven’t been able to track it down. Ryan also managed to taste a Verdejo grape D.O. Rueda version (see tasting note below). The existence of this ethereal wine was finally proven to me at the Alimentaria fair in Barcelona last week, when I tasted a Spanish noble rot wine that really knocked my socks off.
Any Albariño lover should be more than familiar with Bodegas Martín Códax, one of Galicia’s great winemakers. Well, what I didn’t know was that in 1996 they harvested the very first noble rot Albariño in history, no easy task as the Salnés Valley where these grapes are grown tends to have a very damp climate in October, which means that the rot attacks the grapes before they have a chance to ripen. However, the climatic conditions of 1996 shone favorably on this experiment and the result was an Albariño enlightenment that has only been repeated twice at this winery, in 1999 and 2002. Called Gallaecia, the wine has an intense golden yellow color and aromatic notes of hay, dried apricots and other dried fruits such as peaches, minerals and honey, falsely leading you to believe that it is going to be an overwhelmingly sweet wine. It even has slight woody aromas although according to the gentleman who served it to me, it hadn’t spent any time in barrels. On the palate, it does in fact taste incredibly noble and almost velvety, and while there is an initial sweetness, it has an absolutely dry and marvelous finish – not a desert wine at all. For me, this wine was a complete revelation, a dry, “sweet wine” with plenty of fruit, plenty of acidity, and plenty of complexity. Unfortunately my revelation was halted by the steep price, around 28 euros a bottle (accompanied with a real handsome box), justified by the fact that not only is it more labor intensive, but in 10 years or so they have only been able to salvage three harvests.
Curious to find out why there are not more noble rot wines in Spain, I spoke with a well-known enologist named Julia de Castillo who works as a consultant in many of Spain’s great wineries. In her opinion, true noble rot wines can only be made in about four places in the world (Hungary, France, Austria, Germany) and that while there has been a certain amount of experimentation in Spain, the Spanish noble rot wines lack the defining characteristic aromas of the noble rot wines from the rest of the world, these being the musty, humid, damp, fungusy notes that, while they don’t sound like they would be very appetizing, actually make these wines great. In any case, using the bottle of Gallaecia as a reference, I still find myself wishing that Spain would start producing more of these incredibly special wines, true noble rot or not.
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