Behind the Scenes of Noble Late Harvest Wines or “Stickies”

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While there are many different styles of sweet wine ranging from fortified wines such as Port and Sherry (alcohol is added during fermentation which stops the fermentation process leaving behind higher residual sugar and alcohol levels), straw wine (grapes are laid down on straw mats in the sun intensifying sugar) and Eiswein or Icewine (grapes are left on the vine and harvested in winter once the water in them has frozen, again intensifying the sugars); I’m going to focus on Noble Late Harvest.

The beautiful Jordan vineyards.

Noble Late Harvest wines or “stickies” are made in a very specific way.  The viticulturist will leave grapes hanging on the vine past normal sweetness for table wine and as they ripen more they produce more sugar.

Noble rot also known as Botrytis Cinerea is a mould which then attacks the healthy ripe grapes.  The mould weakens the skin of the grape which speeds up the evaporation of water which causes the grape to shrivel and become raisin-like.  The mould concentrates the sugars and acids and adds its own unique flavours to the wine. If you think this is disgusting then just think about how that Camembert you enjoy so much is made.

Botrytis in Riesling Grapes

Botrytis in Riesling grapes

Noble Late Harvest is a rather special wine as a combination of factors is required:

  • To ensure that the grapes are fully ripened and healthy a problem-free ripening period is needed;
  • To encourage the growth and spread of the Botrytis Cinerea mould, misty mornings are needed;
  • Warm and dry afternoons are needed to speed up the drying out of the grapes.

The combination of all these components are found in very few wine growing regions and can’t be relied on to occur every year. As the Botrytis Cinerea mould doesn’t affect all the grapes evenly, pickers have to repeatedly go back to ensure that all grapes are picked at the right stage of “rottenness”.  It is important that grapes are hand-picked and this labour intensive process makes these wines expensive to produce. Thin skinned grape varietals such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Semillon are more susceptible to Botrytis Cinerea.

The Jordan wine estate, well-known for their Noble Late Harvest

The Jordan wine estate, well-known for their Noble Late Harvest

Noble Rot wines are produced world wide with classics such as Sauternes from Graves in Bordeaux, France where Semillon is the main grape varietal with Sauvignon Blanc added for acidity and fruit flavours; Tokaji from North-Eastern Hungary which are well known for their dried fruit and sweet spice flavours (these are classified with a number of “puttonyos” which indicated the level of sweetness with 6 puttonyas being the sweetest); Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and Austria – these are extremely rare and are normally made from Riesling; Australia also makes Noble Rot wines, usually made from Semillon or Riesling.

With Noble Rot wines you can expect primary fruit flavours such as mango, grapefruit, peaches, nectarines or lemons which intensify to dried fruit flavours with intense sweetness with maturation.  You can experience secondary flavours (from the maturation in oak barrels) such as honey, apricot jam, toasted nuts, butter, coconut and spices such as star aniseed, cloves and cinnamon. In South Africa we make many fine examples of Noble Rot wines, one of my favourite ones is the Jordan “Mellifera” Noble Late Harvest 2010.

The Jordan Mellifera 2012 vintage, unfortunately the conditions weren’t favourable for Botrytis Cinerea with the 2012 vintage (latest release) so this is just a natural sweet wine. Still just as delicious as the 2010.

Jordan is a family run estate based in Stellenbosch.  The farm was purchased by Ted Jordan in 1982 and he embarked on an extensive replanting programme, specializing in classic varieties suited to the different soils and slopes.  Gary (Ted’s son) and his wife Kathy Jordan built a wine cellar in 1992 and have been making world-class wines since 1993.

The story of how the Mellifera got its name was nearly a tragic one.  Gary was busy pressing grapes for the maiden vintage when Kathy came running to say that she could hear their 5 year old son, Alex, crying outside the winery.

After looking around Gary couldn’t find anything amiss and had nearly managed to convince Kathy that it was just the whining of the press.  Kathy, however, was adamant that she could hear Alex crying.  Gary realized that there may be a problem, stopped the press and went outside to the front of the winery.

They found Alex sitting at the front door of the winery covered in hundreds of bee stings.  Alex had been playing Zorro, dressed in a black cape and complete with mask, brandishing his stick like a sword, Antonio Bandera-style!

He had found a swarm of bees that had moved into a hollow tree stump near the back of the cellar.  Curiosity got the better of him and he poked his stick into the hollow stump, and within seconds the bees attacked him.  Luckily his cape and mask protected him to a large degree, but Gary and Kathy rushed him off to the hospital.  It wasn’t long before he was back playing on the farm, albeit with his face swollen like a pumpkin for a few days.  And so the wine was named after the Cape honey bee, Apis Mellifera Capensis, with the word Mellifera meaning “honey from the flowers”. 

This wine is made from 100% Riesling grapes.  The name “Mellifera” is taken from Apis mellifera capensis, the scientific name of the Cape honey bee, this is rather fitting for this sweet honeyed wine. You can expect a delicate, floral and fresh ripe apricot bouquet with a limey citrus twist.  Sun-dried peach and apricot flavours with a well-balanced acidity add elegance to the long rich finish.

One doesn’t always have to pair sweet wines with desserts, sweets or cheese, I’ve had the priviledge to try Lafite Rothschild Château Rieussec Sauternes 1er Grand Cru Classé 1976 with Foie Gras on Crostinis which paired together was out of this world.

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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