Have you ever seen botrytised grapes? From most of the pictures I have seen it's not a pretty sight. Berries shrivelled into raisins and covered in mould. But it's a prized mould called Botrytis cinerea and incredibly it's the magic ingredient in the world's best sweet wines. It is reverently called noble rot.
Picking is tedious and can take several days to carefully harvest perfectly rotten berries. The more botrytis, the more concentrated and extravagant the wine will be.
Botrytis imparts toffee, liquid honey and sometimes beeswax characters and the fruit can be as intense as dried apricots. But it is the natural grape acidity that's the clincher. Acidity cuts through the sweetness, leaving a finish that's fresh and clean. Like lemon meringue pie, sweet yet tart, it's all about balanced perfection.
In the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, in France, botrytised wines are made from sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes together. The most famous and most expensive is Chateau d'Yquem: an Auckland specialist wine store has a price tag of $2500 on a 750-ml bottle of the top-rated 2001 vintage.
In Alsace, in northeast France, late harvest wines are labelled are vendage tardif, and are most commonly made from gewurztraminer or pinot gris grapes.
In Mosel, Germany, hedonistic examples are produced from riesling and the sweetest of all are called trockenbeerenauslese, which translates to sweet dried selection.
New Zealand sweet wines are made from almost every white grape variety. Search and you'll find chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, chenin blanc and more.
Riverby Marlborough Noble Riesling 2009 is one of my favourites.
It looks like liquid gold and tastes like nectar, with tangy lime and tangelo flavours providing delectable acidity and brightness.
Riverby's Kevin Courtney, no relation, says that a few select rows in the Riesling vineyard were left on the vines to attract botrytis. They were picked on the 19th May at 32 Brix. The fruit was destemmed and cold soaked before slow, gentle pressing to extract the rich, pure juice. It was fermented in stainless steel, with the ferment being stopped when ideal balance of all the parts was reached. Alcohol was just 9% by volume.
Awarded champion sweet wine at the 2011 Royal Easter Show, it costs about $25 for a 375-ml bottle.
Kevin says he enjoys this wine with blue cheese before dinner. I tend not to drink sweet wines before dinner unless it's with a decadent pate, but the wine with creamy blue cheese and dried fruits after dinner is good. However the match on this occasion was an tangelo and coconut syrup cake. At this time of year it's also delicious with my bread and butter pudding, inspired by Rick Stein.
Click here for the recipe.
Find Riverby online at www.riverbyestate.com.
© Sue Courtney
27 Jun 2011