Fungus among us produces a distinctive dessert wine


It has been said that the first person to eat a tomato was the bravest person in culinary history. We’ve heard similar comments about the first person to milk a cow and the first to consume raw fish.

While we will never know the veracity of such claims, in the world of wine there is a similar “first” hero myth: the first winemaker to use grapes infected by fungus to make wine. We don’t really know when this started either, though the first clear mention of wine made from fungus infected grapes is from around 1576.

The fungus in question is Botrytis cinerea, a necrotrophic fungus that affects grapes (it affects other plant species too), and in the world of horticulture it is simply called gray mold.

In wine grapes, however, this fungus results typically in two types of infection — one  malevolent, the other benevolent; gray rot from consistently-damp conditions, and noble rot, or pourriture noble in French, when damp conditions are followed by a dryness that partially dehydrates the grapes. The gray rot typically produces a loss of the grape bunches entirely, while the noble rot can result in some of the world’s most exquisitely delicious and distinctive sweet dessert wines, such as French Sauternes or the Aszú of Tokaji. The name Botrytis cinerea comes from the Latin for “grapes like ashes” because of the grayish color of the fungal spores.

Noble rot partially dries the grapes, removing water from the flesh, leaving behind a higher percent of solids, such as sugars, minerals and fruit acids. This results in a more intense, concentrated grape. When turned into wine, the result can be a sweet, intensely flavored, complex, balanced and concentrated wine with the potential to develop in the bottle for decades.

Botrytized wines are made wherever the local conditions permit the fungus to develop beneficially. Harvest is usually done entirely by hand, sometimes berry by berry, with multiple passes through the vineyard. The fungus also complicates fermentation since it produces a compound that kills yeast. Also the overall yield at harvest per acre is much less than conventional wines because the grapes are partially dehydrated. All these factors contribute to the often high prices of botrytized wines, so it is very common to see them offered in relatively more affordable half bottles.

Occasionally a château in Sauternes, the appellation within Bordeaux where the most famous of these botrytized wines are produced, will be induced to create a kosher version. While not for every palate (nor wallet), the kosher Château Guiraud Sauternes 2001 ($150) is simply extraordinary. Creamy, honeyed and full-bodied, it expresses aromas of butterscotch, apples and vanilla that mingle within lush layers of apricots, peaches, baking spices and orange citrus. The intense sweetness, concentrated flavors and ideal balance last throughout the extended finish, easily making this one of the world’s finest kosher dessert wines.

 Maker’s Mark on high Beam

Spirits-wise, with our sweet-tooth already engaged, we thought we’d revisit another American whiskey. A recent news item caught our eye: Beam Inc., the soon to be Suntory-owned drinks company, has announced plans for a $67 million distillery expansion for Maker’s Mark, one of its many successful brands. The goal is to increase production by 50 percent. Over the next 18 months, a third still will be added to the current distillery along with additional fermenters, followed by new warehouses over the next seven years. This is all on top of the $50 million Beam has already poured into the Maker’s Mark distillery over the last few years.

Readers may recall last year’s stupidity in which Beam opted to increase the output of Maker’s Mark to meet soaring demand by lowering the alcohol level from 45 percent abv (alcohol-by-volume) to 42 percent abv (or from 90 proof to 84 proof), effectively watering down each bottle without lowering the price. The consumer backlash was sharp and swift, and the company reversed itself lickety-split. Maker’s Mark is matured, on average, between six and seven years before being bottled, so meeting current demand isn’t as simple as it seems.

Within four months of the adding-water fiasco, Beam reportedly explored a “state of the art rinse process” designed to extract more gallons of bourbon from each barrel. The idea was to further develop the Beam technique used for its Devil’s Cut bourbon of “sweating” freshly emptied bourbon barrels. This additional bourbon extract doesn’t taste exactly the same as the bourbon that was more freely and traditionally emptied from the barrel, so was presumably abandoned in favor of good old-fashioned distillery expansion.

In any event, Maker’s Mark clearly remains one of the leading brands of the bourbon renaissance. Maker’s sales increased 10.7 percent in 2013, shipping 1.4 million cases. It first surpassed 1 million cases in 2011 and already expects to ship 2 million cases later this decade.

The Beam expansion for Maker’s Mark is par for the course of late. According to Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, Kentucky’s bourbon makers, which produce about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, have invested more than $300 million in expansions in the last two years alone. According to the Distilled Spirits Council’s figures, Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey revenues rose a projected 10.2 percent last year domestically, while exports surpassed $1 billion for the first time.

So why not join us in toasting American progress with some fine American whiskey:

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (45 percent abv; $26): This is a mild, sweet and very smooth bourbon with notes of vanilla, caramel, wheat grain, allspice, cedar wood and pipe tobacco followed by a nice, rounded, if slightly quick, clean and cool finish. It is incredibly drinkable, and remains our preferred bourbon for cocktails.

Maker’s Mark #46 (47 percent abv; $37): This intriguing and enjoyable whisky is the regular Maker’s Mark with a few additional months of maturation in barrels that contain heavily seared French oak staves, making for an inviting variation. This whisky is smoother and a little less sweet, offering a dollop more heat in the mouth with a little less vanilla and a bit more earthy allspice, caramel and a touch of something racy.

Both expressions of Maker’s Mark are delicious, and dangerously easy to drink. L’Chaim!

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