IN THE WORLD of sensory delights, taste and smell make almost indelible impressions upon memory, triggered by a whiff of perfume or a curiously wonderful taste. The mind harbors glorious first impressions as a kind of warehouse for pleasure against more shadowy times.
In the category of the world's greatest wines, the golden Sauternes of the Chateau d'Yquem enjoys universal fame as a nectar as sweet as, but better than, honey. Nearly everyone who has tasted it can instantly place that first time, including not only the occasion but the surroundings. There's just something about those magnificently made sweet wines that gives them their intrinsic nobility and unforgettable taste. I was not yet in my teens when, as a very special after-dinner Christmas treat, my favorite aunt offered me my own glass, little bigger than a thimble, of the golden Yquem. It was in the afternoon, candles burning as the winter sun brought on early evening. The liquid seemed like some magic potion--obviously never forgotten.
Chateau d'Yquem and the great trockenbeerenauslese sugar-rich wines of Germany owe their honeyed character to a peculiar fungus, a benevolent mold that develops under humid conditions as ripe clusters of grapes approach their moment of harvest. The agency of this "noble rot" is Botrytis cinerea. Spores of the fungus rapidly feed on the juicy berries by penetrating the microscopic pores of the grape skin. The berries will shrivel, losing their weight, with their sweetness concentrated, It is said that "it was a brave man who ate the first oyster," and history well records the first time a wine was ever made from such rotted grapes. It was in 1775, at the famed Schloss Johannisberg on the Rhine, when Prince Abbot of Fulda's messenger arrived late with permission to harvest. Rather than risk Abbot's displeasure, the gray, fuzzy, almost raisined clusters were picked and the wine made. Everyone was startled by the ripe apricot-and-pineapple taste of that juice, and the wine that resulted was seemingly a miracle. It was almost 20 years after the repeal of Prohibition in California, when Beaulieu Vineyard's Andre Tchelistcheff recognized that a condemned lot of Riesling grapes was not infected with bunch rot but rather the "noble rot," that we learned of the possibility--under certain misty, humid conditions--for the blessed blight to happen here. Nature does not regularly bestow upon California vineyards the proper humidity at the proper harvest time for botrytis to appear.