Aging White Wine
By Dan Berger
We all know the pitfalls when we decide to age a bottle of red wine – or a few hundred!
Any such experiences can be fraught with problems, which we observe ruefully when an episode goes sour. And inevitably many do in fact go sour.
We’ve all experienced the disappointment when we open a 20-year-old Cabernet that we have carefully matured. We pull the cork and as we begin to pour, the color indicates what may be summed up by quoting Tom Hanks from the film Apollo 11: “Houston, we have problem.”
Wine Color and Age
The color shows that the wine hasn’t fared well. And then the aroma confirms that it is older and a lot less interesting that we had hoped. A wine that fades before its time is one of the risks we accept when we get into this game.
Those who age wines regularly often start out in this enterprise by realizing that more than half of their wines will not improve. It’s due in part to the way red wines are being made these days, to taste fine when they are young. It can also be because so few people keep their cellars cold enough.
As great an experience as a properly matured red wine can be, I contend that some parallel experiences can also come from properly matured white wines, in particular from certain grape varieties that normally are not aged long enough by anyone except the enlightened.
Aging white wines is not a game for everyone. Most wine lovers appreciate the freshness of youth in their whites, and with grapes like Viognier, Pinot Gris, and unoaked Chardonnay, the freshness of youth is the main charm. Age generally doesn’t benefit them.
However, many white grape varieties would actually benefit aging, from as little as one year to more than a decade. But almost everyone who considers himself or herself a true wine lover knows little to nothing of the greatness of older, properly aged white wines.
The Power of Oxidizing White Wine
Your first thought likely is that I’m talking about oxidized wine. You may be saying, “Dan is going to try to persuade me to appreciate oxidation.”
Part of your thinking about this is correct. Aging whites can be a risk. But a bit of oxidation isn’t always a flaw. Those who age white wines should be aware that a trace of oxidation should be seen for what it is – maturity.
It’s a bit like traces of gray hair on a college professor, distinguished.
This becomes evident when you taste a 20-year-old dry German Riesling in which the petroleum (also called TDN) aroma has become a part of the entirety, which now includes peach, traces of honey, resin, and chamomile tea. The complexity is what’s fascinating.
Rieslings, especially dry versions (such as Australian), are usually endowed with the proper acid and pH to improve over time. Even just four to six years from vintage gives dry Riesling an expansiveness that simply cannot be seen in the wine’s youth.
What is truly fascinating here is that any oxidation that occurs in the first few years may be evident in the aroma, but oxidation does not grow measurably (at least not in a sensory sense) if you age the wine further.
However, the key elements here are good acidity and especially a low pH. This sounds complicated, especially for those who failed chemistry, but the basics are easy to master.
Acidy and pH of White Wines
If we start with the concept that all white wines targeted for the cellar should have a good acid level, the number to remember is 6 grams per liter, g/L (or .6%, which is the same thing) of acid. This is my personal starting point for white wine acidity. Below this number, the acid is simply too low for reliable aging. The closer you get to 8 g/L, the better the wine will age. At about 9 g/L, aging is almost mandatory.
Paired with that is pH – the single most vital statistic to know in any wine. A median point for an aging white wine is a pH of 3.2, which I consider an absolute minimum for longer aging of any white wine. With a pH of 3.4, the wine will display a richer mid-palate, but chances are it will not age very well or very long. That (higher) level of pH will undermine some of the tartness provided by higher acidities.
For me, a classic aging Riesling would have a pH of 3.0. Although 3.1 is fine, 3.0 is much better as it protects the wine from faster oxidation.
White Wine and Residual Sugar
I haven’t referred to residual sugar here. With Riesling, there is usually some residual sugar. The German wine law even states that a wine designated as trocken (dry) may have as much as 9 g/L of sugar and still retain its designation as a dry wine!
The reason for this starts with the fact that sugar is far less important than the acid level and the pH in a German Riesling – and in all Rieslings and indeed in all white wines intended to be aged.
Alcohol Levels in White Wine
Then there is the level of alcohol. All by itself, alcohol provides a weight and texture to all wines. The higher the alcohol, the more likely you are to “feel” the wine in your mouth, and at 13.5% alcohol, all white wines have a softness that 12.5% alcohol wines do not have.
One reason alcohol rarely comes into this discussion is that with Riesling it rarely is an issue. German Rieslings typically have no more than 11.5% alcohol; it’s rare to see one with 12%. As such, the alcohol doesn’t play much of a role in how the wine feels on the tongue, which allows the acid and pH to play greater roles in the texture.
I’ve tasted supposedly dry California Rieslings that have 14% alcohol, theoretically good acidity, and a low pH. And yet the wine feels clumsy and even slightly sweet, even when there is no sugar at all. Gewurztraminer, which often is left a touch sweet to mask any potential bitterness, can be awkwardly soft, even if the acid is high, when the alcohol is permitted to rise.
So we have four parameters to deal with: acid, pH, alcohol, and sugar. When a white wine is made by someone who understands all of these parameters and also understands that savvy buyers will probably want to age the wines for even just a little bit, the equilibrium of all those components is created so the wine will respond over time.
Too much sugar or alcohol in a white wine, or a pH that is slightly too high, will make the wine unbalanced and rob its potential.
Young White Wines
So what do we think of truly balanced aging-potential wines when they are extremely young?
Such wines will probably be very tart when young, to the point where inexperienced tasters will say they are sour. The word “austere” often is used as a primary descriptor for the taste.
What we do know is that such a wine calls for being paired with food when young, and that time in a cellar will benefit its overall structure, not to mention aromatics. Food can modify the high acidity and become an integral part of the wine/food spectrum.
A particularly wonderful New York Riesling that I annually adore (a wine called Tierce) usually has an alcohol level of about 11%, a residual sugar level of 6 grams per liter, an acid level of 8 grams per liter (very high), and a pH of about 2.85 (astoundingly low).
When this wine is released, very few people consume it immediately. It’s pretty dry. Austere is the best term to describe it when it is young. But I have tasted it when it was 7 to 10 years old, and the experience was remarkably sublime.
Another wine that calls for bottle aging is Semillon, notably Australian Semillon. These remarkable wines usually come in with about 11% alcohol(!), and the aroma profiles are relatively lean, delicate, and based on lanolin and figs.
I have tasted fabulous Semillons when they were just released, but I could quickly determine that their long-term potential was virtually nil because they were made to be enjoyed soon after release. One quick clue is higher pH. If the winery raised the pH to allow the wine to be more easily understood when it is young, the aging potential is sacrificed. Or destroyed.
Bottle-Aging White Wine
Without the proper acid and pH, this same thing will happen to any wine, red or white. Those that are angular, lean, and tart are those best suited for aging.
We have often found that Sauvignon Blanc can age rather nicely. Some of the herbal components of the grape variety become more pronounced, as oxidation actually has a way of giving them even more personality.
To be sure, it takes a bit of understanding to appreciate older Sauvignon Blancs, but once you do, the rewards are remarkable. You gain in food compatibility, savory elements of dry hay, lime peel, and even some Near East spices.
Top rate Chardonnays also benefit from time in the bottle. You gain added creaminess, texture, and dried flowers, and some actually begin to take on the weight of a light red wine!
Clearly, not all whites benefit from age. But when cellaring conditions are right (cool, stable, no light), the rewards can be breathtaking.
If you should lose a bottle of such a white wine in your cellar and then find it years later, do not fret. Pull the cork and see what’s there.
You may be shocked.