Dogfish Head 'Noble Rot'
Saison beer, Viognier/Pinot Gris must
9% Alcohol, 18 IBUs
$10 - 750ml
WELCOME to the new series Beer that Tastes like Wine. I'm working on diversifying the content here on MUST, and like a lot of wine drinkers my age <30, I also love beer and drink a lot of it. After realizing I may even drink more beer than wine, I decided it would be unfair if beer was never included on the blog. So similar to the wines I review, I'll be focusing on independent, craft breweries who carefully source their ingredients.
I was planning on having the first review in the series be a Belgian lambic. Then Dogfish Head came roaring in, offering something immensely more intriguing that questions the very foundation of what beer and wine are. Lambics will receive their due later, but for now, we're off to the delicious, oddball world of Dogfish Head beers to explore the metaphysical conundrum: what makes a beer beer and a wine wine?
Dogfish Head's Noble Rot is a true wine/beer hybrid, with nearly 50% of the fermentable sugars coming from the Viognier and Pinot Gris grape must and the rest coming from the malts. This is not simply a dash of grape must/juice for flavor; it's a full beer and wine fusion. The pils and wheat malts and the Belgian yeast form the beer side of the equation while a hefty dose of grape must infected with botrytis form the vinous half. More from Dogfish Head's website:
"This saison-esque science project gets complexity and fermentable sugars from two unique wine grapes sourced with our friends at Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser, Washington. The first addition is unfermented juice, known as must, from viognier grapes that have been infected with a benevolent fungus called botrytis. This noble rot reduces the water content in the grapes while magnifying their sweetness and complexity. The second is pinot gris must intensified by a process called dropping fruit, where large clusters of grapes are clipped to amplify the quality of those left behind. [In addition to the grapes], Noble Rot is brewed with pils and wheat malts and fermented with a distinct Belgian yeast strain."
If in reading the above paragraph, your curiosity is piqued by the mention of a "benevolent fungus," don't expect to imbibe an edible mushroom. Here's the deal. There are several types of rot that can infect grapes in the vineyard; some good, some bad. Noble rot is a good type of rot, responsible for creating some of the greatest sweet wines in the world, most notably Sauternes from France and Tokaji Azsu from Hungary. Noble rot only occurs under the right conditions, but when it does, the affected white grapes have increased sweetness and complexity. If you have some more time, head on over to Wine Folly for a more detailed introduction.
Let's get on with the beer already. The beer pours a lively, golden lager in color. The aroma from the nose is wonderful and, I guess not surprisingly, really unique. It's fruity, spicy, bready with medium intensity. The viognier and pinot gris influence didn't jump out at me, but it opened up in the glass and revealed more of the grape influence over 15-30 minutes. As noted in the video below, Dogfish picked the perfect beer to blend the Viognier and Pinot Gris with. The spicy, bready flavors compliment the grapey fruitiness really well, similar to the way that oak or aging on the lees complements some white wines. The palate was tart and true to the nose with lemon/citrus, honey, and a unique, exotic fruitiness that could only be explained by the grapes. The finish is dry, long, and well-balanced.
This bottle is complex and refreshing and will make a lot of white wine drinkers happy. If it wasn't carbonated, you might be able to fool an unassuming wine drinker into believing this were a wine. That being said, I recommend drinking it like a wine in a wine glass, especially given it's 9% alcohol. It will pair well with a variety of different food, but would be especially great with seafood dishes and cheeses.
One thing to note. This was bottled in December of 2013 and released the following month in January 2014. While not old by any means at just over a year, my guess is that the newer vintage coming out this month will be more expressive with stronger aromas and flavors coming from the grape side of the equation. On the flip side, laying this down for a few years to age may be just as interesting an experiment as this beer is.
As for the metaphysical conundrum? We could intellectually masturbate about the true identity of this beer for ages, but Noble Rot is labeled and sold as a beer for a simple reason: it's produced at a brewery. The influence from the Viognier and Pinot Gris is obvious, but this is an "ale with grape must added," not a "wine with saison beer added." So a beer is a beer if it's made by brewers with mainly beer-ish ingredients. Seems simple enough to me. If you want to delve deeper into the mystery, check out Dogfish Head's take on it below.