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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Who invented botrytized wine? The French or the Hungarians? Or neither?
—Mario, Bogota, Colombia
I'll start with the basics. Botrytis is a humidity-loving fungus that attacks the skins of grapes, causing them to shrivel. Botrytis can kill grapes, but it's also called "noble rot" because—given the right conditions—this dehydration concentrates sugars, adds honey, citrus and spice flavors, contributes viscosity and concentrates acidity, making for some really lovely, usually very sweet, white wines.
It's said that the use of botrytized grapes first occurred in Hungary's Tokay region, when the harvest of 1650 was postponed due to the threat of invading Turks. As the grapes hung on the vines into the humid autumn, noble rot attacked, desiccating the grapes and concentrating their sugars. These botrytis-affected grapes were picked, crushed and added to the must made from non-affected grapes.
A hundred years later, German winemakers were fermenting grapes that were purposefully botrytized by delaying the harvest. And by the early 19th century, this same practice was being employed for France's Sauternes. Botrytis may have played an integral part in sweet wines prior to these dates, but without being fully understood or recognized.
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