by Fred McMillin
for February 10, 1998

Botrytis the Beautiful


1967—"In no area outside of Europe has it so far proved possible to make [Botrytis cinerea] sweet wines. The essential weather conditions have reportedly been found in California but there have been no further developments."

...Alexis Lichine in "Encyclopedia of Wines"

The Rest of the Story

There have been a lot of "further developments" since the late Alexis Lichine wrote those words. Not only has California learned how to produce those special sweet wines, but so has New York. Long Island's Palmer Vineyards drew comments from the New York Times...lingering honey flavor...compares favorably with its French counterpart, etc. But wait just one darn minute.

What on earth is Botrytis cinerea (bow-try-tihs sin-eh-ray-uh)? of all things, it is a member of the fungus family that includes mushrooms and truffles. If Mother Nature is kind enough to supply alternating periods of high moisture followed by dry periods, here's what happens. The moisture allows the Botrytis to form on the grapes and send millions of tiny tubes through the grape skin. Then the drying period allows the water in the grape to escape through the tubes. This concentrates the sugar as one would expect. But what is UNEXPECTED is the creation of a honeyed, spicy flavor that's found in most of the world's greatest dessert wines. To taste what a mere fungus can achieve, here's your chance.

The Wine

1994 Dessert Gewurztraminer, Select Harvest
Palmer Vineyards
Tasting Notes—Highlight it after the meal by serving with thin slices of medium sharp white cheese and crisp, quality crackers. It will dominate the conversation.
The Man Who Made It—Dan Kleck, (516) 722-5364
Price—$15 (375 ml.)


We are not kidding about the loss of water through those millions of Botrytis tubes. Alice and Myron Nightingale pioneered the scientific study of the phenomenon. Typical result: 2.5 tons of ripe grapes were down to 1.2 tons when ready for winemaking.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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