Weekly Practice Tasting Sweets - A Lesson In Botrytis...


Here is a recap of our weekly practice tasting last night with our weekly WSET Diploma tasting group.

This was a wonderful opportunity in fact to compare and contrast excellent examples of sweet wines from around the world.  At the same time, it was an exercise to identify the markers of botrytis, the all important noble rot that gives most sweet wines their unique character.

Noble Rot is actually an elusive character to identify for a wine student.  More so in fact than most dare to admit.  It is often described as giving aromas of dried apricot and other fruits, marmalade, marzipan, caramel and honey.  Some say it is spicy.  However, many sweet wines without any Botrytis also have the same aromas.  And so, what is it?  This is what I will try to highlight in my notes below.

For sure, i gathered that much about Noble Rot: as it consumes about 2/3 of the berries water, it:

  • concentrates sugars
  • turns the skin into a "purplish" color
  • makes the resulting juice golden in color
  • apparently provides extra complexity from glycerol, gluconic & saccharic acids, enzymes

Botrytis is important.  Not only because the more of it there is, the better is the quality of the wine (given that structural balance is achieved), but also because it dramatically reduces the yield in the vineyard.  It is necessarily very expensive to produce a wine with high proportion of it.

And so we tasted:

- Château Roumieu Haut Placey Sauternes 2007

- Oremus Tokaj Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2003 

- Dr Loosen Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Auslese Mosel 2010

- Weinrieder TBA Riesling Schneiderberg Austria 2004

- San Felice Vin Santo Del Chianti Classico 2004

- Donnafugata Ben Ryé 2008

First let's compare the first two wines.

- Château Roumieu Haut Placey Sauternes 2007

- Oremus Tokaj Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2003 

The Sauternes was paler in color than the Tokaj.  Of course a possible indication of different grape, ageing process and age of the wines.  But certainly a clue as to how much the grapes were botrytised and certainly a clue as to the production method used.  In fact, the Sauternes spent 18 months in barrels while the Tokaj spent 30 months.  The deeper gold of the Tokaj,  reflects this extra period of ageing, but also, i think most importantly, the fact that the Aaszú berries were macerated in the juice for 18 hours before a 60 days fermentation.

The aromas of the Sauternes are more floral, clear dried tropical fruits.  There is a freshness of the wine with stone fruits, orange, and a touch marmalade and spices.  Delicate, harmonious  elegant.  The Tokaj expresses itself right away with aromas of smoke, blond tobacco, and spices.  Certainly from Furmint in the blend.  But going beyond that, we can see the similarities to the Sauternes: apricot, marmalade, marzipan.  However these aromas in the Tokaj are much more concentrated, more baked, almost jammy in character.

On the palate, both are obviously seet (Sauternes @ 105-110 g/l, Tokaj @ 120 g/l) and both are well balanced, supple, and fluid.  The Sauternes a little less so, but not noticeably disturbing.  Perhaps the Tokaj has the advantage of being from 2 grapes (Furmint & Harslevelu) which are naturally high in sugar, while the dominance of Semillon, a low acid grape, in The Sauternes drag it down a bit. Nevertheless, the balance of both of these wines is good as it should be for wines of this quality.  The Sauternes now shows "heavier" aromatics with orange peels, candied citrus, and exotic spices notes.  Delicious mid-palate.  The Tokaj is toasty, with notes of delicately roasted almonds, drier orange peels, and dried flowers. The mid-palate is extra long and succulent.  The difference is clear. The Sauternes is feminine whereas the Tokaj is more robust in style & character.  Further, the Tokaj clearly has more concentration and flesh.

Both of the wines have good length.  The Tokay extra long, spicy and complex with a wonderful intensity.  Certainly I would love to drink this Tokaj again in 5-8 years time - brrr...

Here, my assessment of quality is that the Sauternes is a very good wine, while the Tokaj is outstanding.

- Dr Loosen Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Auslese Mosel 2010

- Weinrieder TBA Riesling Schneiderberg Austria 2004

The second two wines.  The Auslese has no botrytis while the TBA has. 

Already from the color, we can have a clue.  Of course the Auslese is 6 years younger.  But it is clearly pale lemon in color while the TBA is clearly deep golden.

On the nose, the Auslese is fresh, floral, with well defined stone fruits, a touch of beeswax, and clearly "mineral".  The TBA is spicy with honey, baked peaches, and apricot.  The nose is generally baked and dense.  Here, we find that the TBA has an "earthy" character.  Something that was not so evident in the 1st two wines tasted thus far.  Perhaps the contrasting of a wine with and without, as we are doing with these 2 wines, shows that Botrytis reveal a clue in itself: that the its character is also "earthy" and "peppery"?

On the palate, both are sweet with the TBA being lusciously so with about 230 g/l while the Auslese is at 80 g/l.  However, both are supported with an excellent acid structure, making the palate feel silky, supple, and fluid.  The Auslese feels much lighter than the TBA.  In fact, the word ethereal comes to mind.  This is, I guess the magic of the Mosel.  To create these delicately sweet wines that are in fact so light, they almost fly on your palate.  Certainly, this wine seduces like a caress and the promise of sensuality... The TBA is hedonistic.  Full bodied, luscious, with an extremely long and delicious mid-palate.  A wine that you want it to last for as long as possible...

Both wines have a long length.  The Auslese more delicate and, again, more ethereal than the TBA.  However, the TBA is much longer and intense.  Perhaps once again a clue that Botrytis is in fact carrying the pleasure for longer and provide more spices & fireworks in the process?

Certainly both wines, as the first 2 have tremendous capacity to age and I can imagine very well how orgasmic the TBA could be given 10 more years...

My assessment of quality.  The Auslese is very good with well defined character, lovely complexity, and delicious length.  The TBA is outstanding. with excellent complexity, clearly defined character, mouthwatering harmony and a length that lasts forever.

Would it be that Botrytis character pushes upwards the quality rating??

- San Felice Vin Santo Del Chianti Classico 2004

- Donnafugata Ben Ryé 2008

The last two.  Both without any Botrytis.  However, each made with very different methods of production.  Both with an element of "appassimento" which means to dry the grapes in Italian.  The Vin Santo had its grapes dried in specially designed rooms from October to January before fermentation and maturation.  The Passito had some of its grapes dried in the sun for 3 weeks on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily.

However, the point of the Vin Santo is the character from the ageing process while the point of the Passito is its explosion of aromatics.

The Vin Santo is made with Trebbiano and Malvasia in the Chianti region.  Aged in a sealed 50 cl barrel for 4 years in the cellar.  As it ages and the wine inside the barrel very slowly evaporates, it acquires a "controlled oxidative" character.  Not unlike the process in Madeira.

The 1st clear clue is its color.  Not golden as we have seen in the Tokaj but medium amber.  The nose is smoky, toasty, roasted.  Rancio fruit character with raisin, nuts, and a touch of honey. Complex with notes of blond tobacco - very similar in fact than a Madeira, minus the "cooked" character.  The palate is sweet with about 80 g/l.  Here the wine is fluid. However, the 16.5% alcohol dominates and clashes with the acidity instead of balancing it out giving the wine an hard edge.  The mid-palate and length is bitter and short.

Assessment of quality: good wine from complexity and well defined aromatic character.  But unfortunately, the palate is dislocated.

The Passito is deep amber with golden hues.  A little like the Tokaj, the color reflects its mehtod of production.  The "passito"grapes were macerated in the juice made from fresh grapes to give it sweetness and by the same way, deepens the color and give it that amber tint.  The nose is exuberant displaying an incredible amount of aromas.  Figs, raisin, apricot, peaches, citrus peel, exotic fruits, white flowers, all dried.  A touch of honey and the sensation of chocolate.  The palate is lusciously sweet with 200 g/l.  Here, the sweetness is felt more heavily than the other wines.  Testament to the production method and the region of origin.  Yet, it is not cloying and in fact, it is sinfully delicious and lip-smacking.  The mid-palate is caressing, full bodied, and luscious.  The length is long, very long.  However, and frankly i admit that this is one of my favourite wines in the world, it is a little rich on the after-taste.  

Assessment of quality: outstanding, even if a little rich, it has wonderful complexity and a very strong character and personality.  The length is outstandingly long and delicious...

With this last wine, the Passito, we learn a very important lesson as we compare it to the Tokaj.  firstly, both have their sweet grapes macerated with their juice before fermentation.  Thus, the color becomes darker and richer.  Both wines have a baked, even slightly jammy fruit character.  Both have apricot and dried exotic fruits notes.

But the comparison ends there.  it is in the contrast that we learn the most.  The Tokaj has the influence of Botrytis while the Passito does not.  In nosing each one after the other, we discover that the Passito displays fresher aromatics, even if jammy, it is crisper some way.  More clearly fruity it seems.  The Tokaj is earthier and seemingly more peppery.  Slightly more "mushroomy" even if mushroom is not the correct way to describe it.  In fact, I have researched this in several books and only one "eminence grise" actually described Botrytis has having a "peppery" character. It seems that contrasting these two wines, and the two Riesling above, that we identify an important marker for it.

A wonderful tasting, even if a little sinful...