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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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"You'll know in a second as you walk into a vineyard if you have bunch rot or not," Cappelli says. "You'll smell vinegar."

For any winemaker who has encouraged mold in the vineyard and is banking on a vintage of dessert wine to retail at $300 or $400 a case, such seasons are disasters.

"It's a gamble, because if you lose the crop, it's totally useless and it's a lot of money lost," says Phil LaRocca, of LaRocca Vineyards near Chico. LaRocca makes an annual Botrytized sweet red Zinfandel.

But noble rot on its own is delicious, according to Cappelli.

"It's a little unsettling to pop one of those moldy berries in your mouth, but it tastes like honey," he says.

Long ago in Europe, winemakers made the very same observation before deciding to try fermenting such infected grapes. Over time, utilizing noble rot to produce standout wines became a highly refined practice, and certain methods became standard. In the Sauternes region, the tradition is to use an 80-20 blend of Botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, fermented naturally beginning at a supersweet potential alcohol sugar level of about 35 percent. By the time the yeast is finished fermenting, the wine usually measures about 13 percent alcohol by volume, with about 13 percent residual sugar.

Hungarian winemakers also take advantage of Botrytis cinerea to make a golden white wine called Tokaji. Traditionally made with six grapes unique to the region, Tokaji ranges from dry to sweet and is a protected style, like Champagne and Chianti—and Sauternes.

Winemakers aren't the only ones using Botrytis cinerea to their advantage. Since 2011, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Milton, Del., has been making a beer-wine hybrid using Botrytized Viognier grapes from Washington. The grape-juice-infused ale is called, plainly, Noble Rot. Available locally, it is smooth, creamy, a little spicy and faintly redolent of pineapple—thanks, surely, to the grapes.

Even though they were rotten.

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