Strong opinions about aging
Letter writers to newspapers rarely have praise to offer. People tend to be motivated to write to wine columnists only when they are upset with something they’ve read or want advice. It takes a strong opinion to write a letter, even about something as unremarkable as aging white wines.
And I admit that the number of letters I get don’t match the number of those received by, say, Dear Abby.
But I get my share, and one recent one was from a gentleman who (not impolitely) rebuked me for remarks I made recently about how aging wines really wasn’t a great idea. I flatly stated that except for a few examples (some Sauvignon Blancs and German Rieslings, in particular), white wines were really not for aging.
The writer was adamant. He said he was a wine collector and that some of his greatest older wines were white Burgundies.
Wines that benefit from aging are made
Yes, I have tasted old White Burgundy, and when they were great to start with and were aged properly, they were superb when they became mature. Alas, the numbers of such wines I have had that were good from aging were far outnumbered by examples of white Burgundies that were near-dead or completely shot.
White Burgundy, which is made entirely of Chardonnay, is one of the few Chardonnay-based wines that can benefit from aging. But the only ones that do are those that are made to age. A lot of White Burgundy gets tired rather quickly.
Proper storage is a must for aging wines
Moreover, the writer didn’t discuss this; but chances are the great old White Burgundies he enjoyed benefitted from aging perfectly in a cellar that was no warmer than 60 degrees at all times and preferably at 50 degrees.
Going further, I happen to love older white wines that are meant to be aged, but this a very specialized field, not only requiring the aforementioned cool cellar, but also three additional things: great (high) acidity in the wine, remarkable patience by the wine lover, and a palate that understands aging white wine.
The latter isn’t easy to acquire. Old white wines can be slightly brown, or even tawny, but may still be enjoyable. One thing is certain: as a white wine is aging, its fruit fades, and what you get in return is often not something preferable.
One California Chardonnay that always wins aging contests is from Napa Valley’s Stony Hill. These are crisp, lean wines when they are released and take on magnificent bottle age with time.
The French make white wines for aging
My favorite white wine with bottle age is Semillon, notably those from Australia. This (usually) lower-alcohol wine has a shy aroma with hints of figs and perhaps dried hay when it’s young. With aging, however, a great old Semillon gains an aroma of lanolin, tobacco leaf, or even a Havana cigar. Sounds odd, but it can be fascinating.
Dry white Bordeaux, which is a Semillon that often has Sauvignon Blanc added, also is a classic aging wine.
Other white wines that do nicely with a bit of aging are some of the white wines of the Loire Valley, notably Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre, as well as Savennieres.
The two former wines are whites made from Sauvignon Blanc that are usually austere when young; the latter is a Chenin Blanc that takes on a fascinating melon-like aroma with age.
Moreover, one of the very longest-lived white wines is the Loire Valley (Anjou) dessert wine called Quarts de Chaume. I have had examples of this that were 40 and 50 years old and still showed amazing freshness and character.
Finally, the white wine that seems to deliver the most with aging is Riesling. I adore a well-aged dry Riesling, but this is such a complex subject that it’s best left for an entire column of its own.
In general, I’ll stick to my earlier recommendation: unless you know what you are doing, and have a trained palate that can understand aging white wine, the best bet is to drink ‘em young.