Sniffing Riesling Clusters for Noble Rot

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Throughout this project, I’ve been focused on inspiring creative people to step into the vineyard. This experience was a little different.

My father was visiting me in Santa Barbara County, California at the tail end of harvest. We heard that the team at Riverbench was bringing in some of the last fruit of the year – their late harvest Riesling – and needed a hand with sorting clusters. So we headed over to the winery to see what was going on.

When we arrived, they had just brought in four large bins of grapes from their vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.


riverbench late harvest riesling

Looking into the first bin, we saw an unusual sight – a mixture of yellowish-green ripe grapes intermingled with shriveled purple clusters.

Clarissa Nagy, the winemaker at Riverbench, explained to us that they intentionally left these grapes on the vine longer than the other Riesling blocks that were picked weeks earlier.

late harvest riesling grapes

The sugar levels in the over-ripe grapes were extremely concentrated and because they were left on the vine for so long, some grapes had shriveled down into raisins.

This is where things got fascinating.

riverbench late harvest rieslingClarissa explained that we needed to smell each individual cluster in search of “Noble Rot” (also known as botrytis) – a naturally occurring fungus gives a luxurious complexity to their sweet dessert wine.

My father, who works in the fragrance industry, got a chance to smell what she was looking for as well as what she DID NOT want in the “good” bin that would later be crushed for juice.

Some of the clusters were outright funky – caused by “sour rot”, a fungus that gives undesirable flavors in wine. Those had to be identified and thrown in a “bad” bin.

It was an extremely tedious task, but a very interesting look behind the scenes. We’ll undoubtedly appreciate each sip of Riverbench late harvest Riesling when it is released next year.

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