What is... Botrytis

A most noble of rots indeed. Noble rot? Surely a contradiction in itself..

No, it really is – botrytis, or “noble rot” is a GOOD fungus that likes moist conditions & ripe grapes. A rot that makes the finest sweet wines in the world, think Sauternes, Tokaji & Riesling Auslese. Scientifically known at Botrytis Cinerea, & from the same family as Stilton & penicillin, the fungus has 2 guises, both of which are at the mercy of the weather gods, “noble” or “grey’. No prizes for guessing the black sheep of the family.


In perfect conditions, there is just the right amount of humidity for the fungus to permeate the skin of the grapes, followed by dry sunshine. Which is why the Graves area of left bank Bordeaux, Sauternes, makes such worthy botrytised fare; subsidiary river Ciron’s close proximity to the Garonne creates a naturally occurring mist that allows the rot to take hold, followed by beautiful Southern French sunshine. This dehydrates the grapes from within, but maintains the all important sugar levels, making for a intense & complex glass or 2. Yes please. Should the humidity decide to stick about, grey rot sets in, ruining the grapes & not making for any glass at all; a most perilous nobility indeed!

Legend varies depending on its provenance. The Germans, as ever, have done their homework & spun a yarn of Homeric worth. With dates, of course. The tale starts in 1775 at the Bishop of Fulda’s estate. Each year, the harvest of his precious Riesling grapes awaited his say so. However, this particular year the abbey messenger (who had been dispatched to give the holy green light) was robbed en route to the estate, so harvest was delayed by 3 weeks, just enough time for botrytis to nobly install itself. The grapes were deemed unworthy & given to peasants who duly produced a most delicious wine. Spatlese (late harvest) went on to have global acclaim in all its delicately balanced glory.


Not to accept defeat, especially where German neighbours are concerned, Hungarian legend puts its stake in a good couple of centuries earlier, the first record of an aszu (wine from botrytised grapes) in works from 1571. Towel turning stuff indeed.


Modern day botrysised wines are some of the finest & highly regarded bottles around. From Sauternes’ “liquid gold”, Chateau d’Yquem, to Hungarian Tokaji being coined “Wine of Kings. King of Wines” by Louis XIV. This noble rot generally comes with a fairly noble price-tag to boot. And justly so. Perfect weather conditions don’t manifest themselves year on year & the grapes have to be picked by hand. A labour of love with an understandably small yield. Some things are worth their scarcity.

Grape requirements are thin-skinned & tight bunches. So, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc & Furmint; spanning German, French, South African & Hungarian varietals. Tasting notes range from honey to ginger to mushroom & come in at varying levels of acidity, depending on the grape itself & how long the rot is allowed to settle in.


So there we have it; delicious with dessert, or indeed cheese, or even as an aperitif. Botrytis can come to stay any day, provided he packs his airs & graces. Also a strong contender for scrabble, not to mention hangman. Versatile AND virtuous. I’ll drink to that.




The Author

Helen Richards

Hely's love of wine was born from a young age, spending summers exploring the vineyards of France. After studying Modern Languages at Oxford, she worked in publishing and branding before joining the JF Tobias team to help build our blog / written content. She loves wine, writing, yoga and adventure in equal measure and strives to balance all four, although not necessarily all at the same time!