Dave Jones’ Cafe Beat

Food & Drink Opinions - January 8th, 1988
HOW SWEET IT IS!

Sweet wines are not as popular as they used to be and dial’s a shame. They are among the best wines made and very difficult to produce. Great care must be taken in picking the grapes and vinifying them.

I am referring to the natural sweet wines and not those which have been sweetened by the addition of grape juice, sugar or anti-freeze. I mean the sauternes and barsacs of France, the beerenauslesens and trockenbeeren auslesens of Germany and the Tokaji aszus and esencias of Hungary. Those are the wines whose grapes have to be picked later than usual, when special weather conditions have produced a “noble rot” instead of a grey rot, which ruins the grapes.

The principal actor in this oenelogical drama is a fungus called Botrytis cinorea. Inter­estingly enough, this little fel­low can be the villain in the piece, if conditions are not right. They are never right in the Burgundy area, for exam­ple; so, when it appears on the scene, the growers clutch their foreheads, roll their eyes heavenward and, with many a “merde” rush for the fungi­cides.

The necessary condition which, so far as it is known, occurs only in Hungary, France, Germany and California, is 24 hours of about 93 per cent humidity followed by dry, warm weather. If this happens the Dr. Jekyll char­acter of the Botrytis comes out, covers the grape with its bene­ficent mold, loosens the skin, allowing the moisture within to escape and provides the grape with a high sugar content.

The beneficial characteristics of the fungus were discovered accidentally in Hungary in the early 1600s, some time before 1650, and delicious wines which the Russian tsars bought by the train-load, began to be produced from the Tokaji aszu or overripe grapes. I won’t go into the different kinds of aszu wines. They are too compli­cated for this general story.

It was also discovered by accident in Germany. Schloss Johannisberg claims to be the vineyard where it was found, I have yet to hear any other German vineyard dispute the story, which attributes the find to a late order to start the vintage. The messenger from the Bishop of Mainz, then the owner (between 1750 and 1775) had lost his way. When he finally got to the vineyard, the cellarmaster was aghast. He saw what were once beautiful grapes covered with mold. But,  in desperation, he told the pickers to go ahead, any­way. What then resulted was the first beerenauslesen, and late harvesting became a prac­tice in German vineyards.

As for France, the credit for the discovery of Botrytis goes to a German vintner visiting Chateau d’Yquen in the 1850s. He noticed that the conditions were right for the beneficial mold to develop and advised the cellar-master.

Sweet wines are expensive compared to dry ones, because of the risks that go into the making of them. Any mistake in judging the climatic condi­tions could be disastrous. But every golden drop is worth anything you pay. That was the conclusion some guests of mine came to when they sampled a Tokaji Essencia, 1957, at my home. It is a rare wine which few wine-lovers have tasted. I once served a Tokaji Essencia to the president of the London-based International Wine and Food Society at the end of a meal at home. It was the first time he had ever tasted it.

If such dessert wines are too sweet for you, I suggest you develop your tongue to appre­ciate them. For they are among the greatest wines in the world, much sought after by connois­seurs.

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On a new subject, I have recently been asked by several people what I think of the wine bought by a Japanese for $75,000. His purchase con­sisted of nine bottles of Prem­ier Grand Crus of the Medoc, vintages 1869 and 1870, two of the greatest vintages just before Phylloxers vastatis, the aphid from America, almost destroyed Europe’s vineyards.

My answer is simple: if I were so rich that $75,000 were the equivalent of $75 in my present economic circumstan­ces, I might have been inter­ested. But I would have want­ed to know the provenance of each bottle. I would want to know whether it had come di­rect from the chateau or from someplace else. If the latter, I would lose all interest; for any move ages wines. For wines that old, it would made them undrinkable today. Such wines really are museum pieces, to be displayed and not to be drunk. But displayed for what reason? Wines are made to be drunk. At least that’s the reason I buy them.