Can White Wine Age?
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 27, 2004. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
"Is there ever any reason to cellar a white wine? Are there whites that can develop in the cellar?"
Thanks to reader Ed Y. for this question, which touches on an aspect of keeping and enjoying wine that I haven't addressed for a while. We frequently talk about aging red wines, with the understanding that even in this category, the lighter and fruitier specimens aren't usually meant for aging.
The concept, if not the actual practice, of "cellaring" fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone reds and their counterparts from Italy, Spain and the New World, is well-known. Keep these ageworthy reds lying quietly on their sides in a cool (55F/13C), dark place for a few years, and they'll gradually shed their tart and tannic youthful astringency, replacing it with a mellow complexity that can't be achieved as well in any other way.
Ageworthy reds typically gain longevity from tannins, an astringent substance that most red grape skins impart. White wines, on the other hand, are made without the skins and are rarely tannic. But there are other elements to seek in ageworthy reds and whites: most of all, look for good balance between fruit and acidity. A wine that's "fat" and "flabby" in its youth is more likely to fall apart than improve with age in the bottle. A wine that's overtly oaky or one that smells more of butter or caramel than fruit isn't likely to reveal elegance with age. I often hear wine enthusisasts hopefully predicting that youthful oak will "integrate," but I can't say that I've often seen it happen.
Just like reds, but even more so, most white wines are made to enjoy while they are young and fresh, but here are a few noteworthy exceptions:
Many of these whites can age for a decade, and the best can go for 20 years or even longer. You'll occasionally see Sauternes from the '50s selling at auction for record prices.
- The best Chardonnays (usually add "expensive," unfortunately) can reward cellaring with a dramatic increase in richness and complexity. This is most true of the top-rank white Burgundies, but certainly some of the top California and Australian Chardonnays as well.
- Fine Rieslings, especially the best German examples from the Rhine and Mosel, can be remarkably long-lived, and will develop wondrous complexity with age.
- Dessert wines based on white grapes - Sauternes, late-harvest Rieslings, Tokaji and their New World equivalents - can age and improve for years or even decades.
- Top-end vintage Champagnes can show aroma and flavor evolution with age similar to White Burgundies, but they also tend to lose their fizz and take on "cork-aged" aromas, not the musty stench that spoils a cork-tainted wine but distinctly cork-like and woody. It's definitely an acquired taste.
But even more than with red wines, good cellar conditions are critical. Aging whites just won't work on the wine rack in the long term, unfortunately. The line between a warm, complex richness and mere Sherrylike oxidation is a fine one, and whites kept under warm storage conditions - even air-conditioned room temperature - will rarely last.