A nobly rotten vintage

NANCY HAWKS MILLER | Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2011 9:45 pm

In this growing season of uncharacteristically cool temperatures, uncertainty, ill-timed rain, crop loss and bunch rot, there’s at least one winemaker in the valley who is smiling.
Roger Harrison, of RA Harrison Family Cellars, ranks the 2011 vintage in the top three in difficulty he’s seen in his 29 years as a winemaker. And while he’s concerned for his neighbors, he is also looking at perhaps the best harvest for his wine he’s ever seen.
He’s chosen an extremely challenging winemaking niche for himself: late-harvest, botrytized wines. It’s production is fraught with risk, and the wine has to be tasted and understood to sell.
Why does he pursue it? “It’s what I do best” he said.
Harrison’s day job includes being responsible for the production of Beringer’s Nightingale, a Sauternes-style, late-harvest sweet wine. “I’ve been privileged to be mentored by three renowned legends in the wine industry: Myron and Alice Nightingale and Edward Sbragia,” Harrison said.
The name “late harvest” is literal. When everyone else in the valley has finished crushing, pressing and cleaning up, Harrison is still walking the vineyard and usually harvests in December.
The greatest source of risk for this style is that the birds may feast on his crop or he may be rained out and looking at a vineyard full of sour rot before harvest day finally arrives.
Botrytized wines are delightfully odd in that the best of them are made from grapes that are, technically, rotten — they’re infected with Botrytis Cinerea mold. Botrytis can destroy a crop in fairly short order but, under the right conditions, it makes a distinctively rich sweet wine unlike anything else. If you’ve had the pleasure of sipping a glass of Sauternes, Beerenauslese or Tokaji Aszú — or Harrison’s wines — you’ve experienced what the French refer to as “noble rot.”
The botrytis perforates the grape skins and the berries begin to dehydrate, concentrating the flavor and sugar. On a good year, Harrison’s crop comes in at between 35 and 40 percent sugar, while the target sugar for table wine is in the low to high 20s, depending upon the style.
“The botrytis gives sauvignon blanc melon, pear and honeyed character and the semillon shows apricot, caramel and nutty flavors,” he said. “The semillon also gives the wine viscosity — it really adds to the mid-palate.”
Harrison produces a late-harvest sauvignon blanc and Nobility, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon in the tradition of Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France.
Think back to last month and you have almost a perfect recipe for noble rot. Significant rainfall in the first week, followed by warm, dry weather set the stage for mold to develop and progress, much to the dismay of local growers who still had grapes on the vine.
Then, shortly after, there was another downpour and this was a warm one. Harrison said, “It’s very difficult for everyone else and they’re picking around the rot, but it was just perfect for me — the botrytis bloomed and was spreading. With the second rain it just took off. And, the warm, dry conditions that followed were just perfect for dehydration.”
Last year, however, was a difficult year for him, which highlights the need for specific conditions in order to succeed with this style. Like 2011, last year was a long, cool growing season with October rains — in his case too much. “Last year, I got rained on 15 times,” Harrison recalled. With too much rain, it’s hard to get the dehydration going, he said. “I had to pick on a couple of dry days in December or I would have had nothing.”
Aside from the risk of potentially having nothing to harvest, it’s important to differentiate noble rot from black rot or green mold.
“The pickers think I’m nuts,” Harrison said. “I show them the good botrytis but we end up picking everything — clusters, partial clusters and grapes that are rotten — and then sorting it out at the winery. Later, I go back to see if the healthy grapes we left hanging have rotted and there can be a number of passes through the vineyard.”
There’s financial risk, too. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I have to buy about two green, healthy tons, which would typically yield 350 gallons, to get one ton of botrytis. Between the sorting and the fact that they’re dehydrated the yield is about 90 gallons. It’s kind of like buying four tons to get one, so these grapes are expensive.”
The challenges don’t end at the sorting table. “The sugar, acid and pH are out of whack, and the juice is low in nutrients because of the rot,” Harrison said. “It’s not a good environment for the yeast.” He adjusts the pH by supplementing the acid and adds nitrogen-based yeast food to encourage the yeast. He ferments the wine in 60-gallon, French oak barrels.
This year, he hopes to complete harvest early, by his standards, in November. “I couldn’t have created better conditions,” he said.
He walks the vineyards with increasing frequency as the time to harvest gets closer. “I can’t sample the grapes the way you would to make dry table wine. The sugars are all over the board. I walk every three days and taste the fruit, and then, as it gets closer, I walk every day. I don’t know how to explain it; it’s like the vineyard just talks to me. Knowing when to harvest comes with experience.”
Why is this style of wine difficult to sell?
“I think it’s just a question of people getting educated about the wines,” he said. “I don’t like the word ‘dessert’ wine. I think that’s what’s killing the wine in this country. I’m an up front sweet and savory guy. Anything savory goes with a sweet wine and gives it a kind of balance.
“You could serve blue cheese or foie gras with a glass of Nobility as an aperitif. If you have blue cheese with late-harvest wine it makes the wine taste better and the cheese taste better. This style is great with a cheese course and is the best choice for strong cheeses. Sweet wines are more versatile that people think.”
His favorite dessert pairing? “Crème brulee. And, for Thanksgiving I think a glass of Nobility with pumpkin cheesecake would be an amazing pairing.”
Copyright 2011 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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