Noble Rot Wine: How Rotten Grapes Make the Sweetest Wine
You might think there's nothing noble about a rot-inducing fungus, but in the weird and wild world of wine, noble rot is one of nature's greatest gifts.
You see, noble rot — scientifically known as Botrytis cinerea — is a grey fungus that impacts a variety of plants, vegetables, and fruits, most notably wine grapes. But unlike rotting strawberries or veggies, rotting wine grapes aren't always a bad thing. Au contraire, they can be a very, very good thing.
In this guide, you'll learn all about noble rot wine, including where it originates, how it's produced, and how it compares to other types of wine. You'll also discover some pro tips for enjoying this wine, including ideal serving temperature, food pairings, and the type of glass to use.
What Is Noble Rot Wine?
Sometimes called botrytized wine or botrytis wine, noble rot wine is any wine made with grapes affected by the Botrytis cinerea fungus (aka botrytis bunch rot, grey rot, grey mold, or edelfäule in German).
While it's true that winemakers have long struggled to combat mold in their vineyards (and cellars), in the case of noble rot, it's all good. Botrytis cinerea thrives in specific climatic conditions — specifically, cool, moist conditions with little or no wind. In this type of humidity, the fungus attacks thin-skinned wine grapes that grow in tight clusters, which makes them more susceptible to rot and spreads the infection more quickly.
The affected grapes then shrivel up like raisins, concentrating the sugar content and intensifying the flavors. As a result, noble rot grapes make wonderfully rich dessert wines that often have complex flavors ranging from honey and caramel to ginger and even beeswax.
Botrytis bunch rot can affect both red wine grapes and white wine grapes. But winemakers opt for white grapes since the mold can create unpalatable flavors and aromas when it reacts with the compounds in dark-skinned grapes.
The most well-known and historic regions for noble rot wine include Hungary (particularly the Tokaj region), France (everywhere from the Loire Valley to Bordeaux), Austria, and Germany.
Some of the most popular noble rot wine grape varieties include Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat.
How Is Noble Rot Wine Made?
As with all winemaking, the process begins in the vineyard with the grapes being harvested and pressed. However, when it comes to noble rot wine, these precious, shriveled grapes require a gentle hand and lots of attention and time.
Botrytis cinerea typically infects grapes later in the growing season and doesn't affect every grape cluster exactly the same way. So, to ensure the wine grapes have reached the desired level of dehydration and decay, vintners must allow nature to run its course before they handpick them.
The botrytized grapes are then gently pressed to extract the concentrated sweet liquid, however little there might be. (Some estimate that it takes a whole vine to produce just one glass of noble rot wine.)
Once the pressing is complete, the grapes can begin fermenting, which is when the juice turns into alcohol. As with other sweet wines, the fermentation process is disrupted before all the residual sugar content is converted into alcohol, resulting in a sweeter wine.
Some of the most well-known noble rot wines include:
- Tokaji Aszú (Tokaj) from Hungary
- Sauternes from the Bordeaux region in France
- Ausbruch from Austria
- Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and late-harvest (Spätlese) Riesling from Germany
Fun fact: Some winemakers in warmer wine regions, like California and Australia, have experimented with importing Botrytis cinerea and spraying their vineyard with the fungus to achieve noble rot.
How To Enjoy Noble Rot Wine
Now that you have the 411 on what botrytized wine is all about, it's time to start drinking it like a pro. Here are some tips on enjoying this special vino, including the best temperature for serving, ideal food pairings, and the type of glassware you may want to serve it in at your next wine tasting party.
When serving noble rot wines, follow the general guidelines for the best wine temperatures: Much like other white wines, noble rot wines are great at cooler temperatures, between 45-50 degrees. That said, some aged botrytis wines are best served a few degrees warmer than this. To avoid overchilling your wine and muting its flavors, remove it from the refrigerator and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
When it comes to food and wine pairings, sweet noble rot wines such as late-harvest Riesling and Gewürztraminer make a luscious partner for many foods, including pungent cheeses like blue cheese, pasta dishes with creamy sauces, shellfish, and smoked meats.
Sauternes, with its honeyed notes of apricot, is particularly well-suited for savory classics like pâté and blue cheese. It's also fantastic served with Asian and Indian cuisine, offering a sweet counterpoint to curries and spices. This palate-pleasing white wine is also great with creamy desserts like cheesecake and custard.
A popular pairing for Hungarian favorite Tokaj is foie gras, which creates a luscious mix of sweet and salty. If goose liver isn't your thing, opt for poultry cooked with a hint of sweetness — think balsamic chicken and figs or honey-roasted chicken. Also, apple tarts, sweet crepes, chocolate anything, and candied nuts will pick up on the wine's notes of honey, caramel, and stone fruit.
It's worth mentioning that noble rot wines are also ideal as an aperitif before a meal, a post-prandial digestif, or simply on their own as a sippable dessert in a glass.
Type of Glass
As with other sweet wines, it's best to serve noble rot wines in a small wine glass to keep the concentrated flavors and aromas intact. Serving these precious vinos in small stemware also encourages sipping, so you can savor the complex, honeyed flavors and ponder the long, laborious journey it took to get from grape to glass.
Pro tip: To keep your stemware in tip-top shape, check out these DIY wine glass racks to safely stash your stemware in style.
Raise a Glass To Noble Rot
Noble rot might sound like an oxymoron. But in viniculture, this esteemed decay known as Botrytis cinerea is a very big deal. Just like there are good bacteria that boost your health (hello, probiotics!), this beneficial fungus can boost your mood by creating a fabulous bottle of sweet wine.
While most winemakers throughout the centuries have done everything in their power to stave off mold and other crop killers, noble rot wine proves that there is always an exception to the rule. To further illustrate that point, these sweet sippers are more than just dessert wines — they work just as well with savory dishes.
Whether you're enjoying a late-harvest Riesling with brunch or enjoying an exquisite Tokaji Aszú for a special occasion, there are plenty of noble rot wines for you to try.Be sure to check out the Usual Wine blog for the latest and greatest tips, tricks, and techniques that will help you enjoy your next glass of wine to the fullest.