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Rotten Luck

One of the things I love about wine is how much of what we accept as standard practice for excellence today was a complete accident or failed experiment at some point in the past.

For example, one of the stories I’ve heard is that Madeira was regularly exported to America a couple hundred years ago as the cheap plonk that no one in Europe wanted to drink. But the heat on the long ocean voyages warmed the barrels and improved their contents – and Americans knew they were tasting something special after the wines landed on these shores. As a result, today, Madeira barrels are warmed in the sun, outside the wineries, to develop the wines’ flavors and complexity.

I have no idea if this story is true, but forgive me for fantasizing about a time in America’s history when we had good taste and we were in on a secret long before we became the land of the Big Mac. Yet it’s theses types of stories that also make me appreciate dessert wines, like the R.A. Harrison Nobility on Lot18 today.

Wines such as this, like the Sauternes wines of Bordeaux, are made by letting the grapes hang out on the vines extremely late in the season. If conditions are right, the grapes will play host to an infection called Botrytis. The spore attaches itself to the grapes and sucks the water out of them, concentrating the grapes’ natural sugars.

As Botrytis spreads, the grapes become a horror show. “Sickly” is a generous word. I’ll never forget picking late-harvest Riesling grapes in New Zealand several years ago and thinking that there was no possible way that fruit so rotten, so disgusting-looking, could ever produce something consumable by humans. Even tasting the grapes off the vine is less appealing than eating the dirt beneath them.

Yet Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, in particular, is one of the most valuable substances on Earth – and the discovery that diseased, rotten grapes could yield something otherworldly in taste and value is one seriously happy accident. Even happier is that the process can be reproduced elsewhere in the world to similar effect.

Of course, most wine-world accidents don’t have such positive results. That makes the fortunate ones that much more alluring and exciting.