Book Review: “Noble Rot” by William Echikson

The term “noble rot” has long been a secret handshake among wine connoisseurs, an English translation of the French pourriture noble, or what biologists would officially call “botrytis” (and even more officially, Botrytis cinerea). At its essence, “noble rot” is a benevolent fungus, critical to the production of many of the world’s top late-harvest wines. Botrytis appears in the fall — with the onset of humidity in the vineyard — helping to concentrate the sugar levels in the grapes as it facilitates dehydration. For this reason, the words “noble rot” are often synonymous with the Bordeaux region of Sauternes, the legendary home of the world’s most expensive dessert wines.

Given its title, one might assume that “Noble Rot” is limited to the realm of Sauternes, but William Echikson’s book actually provides a survey of the entire Bordeaux region, from the upstart garagistes to the most famous chateaux. Echikson presents a revealing portrait of the region, which has only recently begun to feel the effects of the globalization of wine. These changes have ushered in a new era of modernity in Bordeaux, creating a growing niche for high-priced winemaking consultants, as well as a new market for French cult wines.

With the advent of globalization, “Noble Rot” also examines the recent American influence in Bordeaux, especially that of übercritic Robert Parker, who established his reputation with the legendary 1982 vintage, and who has continued to influence tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Depending upon whom you ask, Parker is equal parts hero and villain in Bordeaux, although the region itself features plenty of its own home-grown controversy. In some cases, this controversy has garnered a public forum, and “Noble Rot” also details the region’s most infamous family feud, a bitter legal battle that lead to MHLV’s hostile purchase of the legendary Chateau D’Yquem in 1996. Among this recent context of courtrooms and multimillion dollar lawsuits, the term “noble rot” certainly assumes a whole new meaning today.

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