What the heck is fungus wine? It might be your new go-to cottage sip

Noble rot of a wine grape, botrytis grapes in sunshine, fungus wine Photo by evryka/Shutterstock

What’s the perfect accompaniment to wine? In a certain corner of Bordeaux, France, the answer might surprise you. It’s a fungus!

Fungus isn’t exactly welcome with most grapes, but when it comes to botrytis wines, it’s a very good thing. Botrytis (also known as the “noble rot”) is a fungus that works wonders on thin-skinned white grapes (like sémillon, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle), concentrating their sugars and developing a rich flavour. Once you try them, they may just be your favourite cottage sip.

Where do botrytis wines come from?

Nearly all of the world’s botrytis wines come from Bordeaux thanks to one thing: geography. Conditions are perfect for a hazy damp mist to linger around the riverbanks, inviting the fungus to reproduce.

Botrytis wines are often called Sauternes, after the region where they are commonly produced in Bordeaux, but you can also find them in Cadillac, Cerons, Loupiac, and many others.

What makes them so special?

Few wines are so labour-intensive to produce. Vines are handpicked several times during the harvest season.

Ian Carswell, the chef and owner of Black Tartan Kitchen in Carleton Place, Ont., knows firsthand what this hard work means. He harvested these grapes while working in France. “It was such a meticulous and time-consuming process. Every single cluster of grapes had to be inspected for the proper type of grey mould and any individual grapes that didn’t fit the bill were discarded.”

What do botrytis wines taste like?

Common tasting notes include honey, acacia blossoms, dried fruits, candied fruits, citrus fruits, typical fruits, and toasted sugar.

Carswell offers the following advice for those drinking botrytis wines for the first time: “There are a lot of preconceptions out there that all ‘sweet wines’ are syrupy and simple…botrytis wines offer a lot more complexity than most sweet wines and are often fruitier and more floral on the nose.”

Why cottagers will love them

Botrytis wines are almost always sold in half-sized bottles, so anyone who’s trying them for the first time doesn’t have to worry about investing in a pricey full bottle. Cottagers will also love that botrytis wines will easily keep in your fridge for two weeks when open (and possibly longer)—you can open a bottle this weekend and sip on it again next week…and even the week after that.

How should you drink botrytis wines?

Botrytis wines pair beautifully with sharp, spicy, and buttery foods. Think of them as the sweet component you need to balance a complex plate.

Carswell has some specific recommendations for cottage chefs. “The balance of sweetness and acidity in a good botrytis wine makes it very versatile with any white poultry, fish, or shellfish dishes. Fresh caught bass, perch, or pickerel, simply seared with butter and lemon would make a lovely pairing beside the smoke of a campfire. Chicken with rich, cream-based sauces in pastas or casseroles also pairs quite well if you are feeding a larger crowd at the cottage. It may be a bit contentious and not too common in cottage country, but speaking as a chef, I would be remiss not to mention that foie gras and Sauternes are very good friends!”

Where can you find them?

The LCBO carries botrytis wines. Some bottles to look for include Castelnau de Suduiraut 2015 ($26.95), Lieutenant de Sigalas Rabaud Sauternes 2009 ($20.95), and Château Rieussec Sauternes 2016 ($49.00—gorgeous now, but worth saving for the next 15 or so years if you can stand the wait).

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