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Rotten in the State

In the right hands, moldy, rotten grapes riddled with Botrytis can produce delectable results



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Marco Cappelli, who makes Sauternes-style wines for both Swanson Vineyard in Oakville and his own Sierra foothills winery, Miraflores, first tried his hand at utilizing Botrytis-infected grapes in 1987. That fall, while out prospecting for grapes near Napa, Cappelli came upon a vineyard of fruit smoldering under the gray, sooty rot of Botrytis cinerea. Cappelli had spent a harvest season working at Chateau La Tour Blanche, a winery in the heart of the Sauternes region, just two years before, and he recognized the noble rot.

"It was a wonderful growth of Botrytis," he remembers.

Having watched up-close the making of a Sauternes vintage, Cappelli was inspired to give the process a shot. It turned out well.

"We wound up with four barrels of this wonderful Botrytis wine," he says.

It got accidentally combined with a non-Botrytized Sémillon barrel, and that vintage was thus blended out of the winery's record books, but Cappelli would reattempt the process in following years—and with success. His Swanson Crepuscule and Miraflores Botricelli have since become two of his recurring signature dessert wines.

Some years promote a stronger growth of Botrytis cinerea than others, and Cappelli says 2006, 2008 and 2010 were exceptional vintages. The 2008 Botricelli, for one, is dazzling, with smells of zesty fruits and flavors of honey, pineapple, vanilla, caramel and even grilled buttered corn.

But sometimes Botrytis turns foul. Ideally, noble rot is a clean, pure presence of Botrytis cinerea alone, but when other molds and bacteria appear, the effects are ruinous. The grapes turn mushy and useless, and they melt off the vines. Winemakers call such overmoldy conditions "bunch rot."

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