How often do you seek out an aged white wine? Even the savviest wine drinkers are often unsure about keeping whites around for years, worried about how the flavors will evolve.
And that’s a shame, because while many wines are made to be enjoyed quickly, what makes a wine ageworthy has little to do with its color. It’s the balance of style, acidity and concentration that determines whether a white wine will improve and gain complexity over time.
To learn what to look for in an ageworthy white wine is easy. There are several basic attributes and a few things to consider before you make a purchase.
Cool-climate winemaking regions in the Old World, like Germany’s Mosel Valley, often produce racy, acidic whites in an off-dry to sweet style that age beautifully, says Vanessa Conlin, head of wine at Wine Access, a direct-to-consumer online wine purveyor.
However, certain iconic terroirs do the work of preserving a wine’s flavor, she says. How the grapes ripen results in necessary high acidity while still having a concentration of flavor. Take Burgundy, which produces some of the world’s most lauded dry whites.
“The terroir creates a natural concentration in their Chardonnay grapes,” says Conlin. She says that producers leverage that concentration to create wines with a “legendary capacity to gain complexity over time.”
Other regions known for wines that age gracefully include Alsace and Bordeaux in France, the Clare Valley in Australia, pockets of California, Oregon and Washington and increasingly, Chile and Argentina, says Evan Goldstein. He’s a Master Sommelier and president/chief education officer of Full Circle Wine Solutions in San Mateo, California.
Spanish regions like Rioja, Montilla-Moriles and Jerez offer whites that will sing with your supper 10–20 years down the line, says Pedro Ballesteros Torres, an agricultural engineer and the second-ever Spaniard recognized as a Master of Wine.
A lot of different terroirs can create cellarworthy wines, but certain varieties from these regions perform better long-term.
White varieties that age well will be both high in acid and high in extract (the insoluble substances in wine that lend it flavor). Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are all excellent examples that can produce wines that strike the perfect ageworthy balance.
Goldstein adds Sémillon, especially from Australia, to that list. Torres advises wine lovers seek out Viura from Rioja, Pedro Ximénez from Montilla. But how those grapes are treated after harvest can impact flavors as well.
Great wine is made in the vineyard, but certain practices promote the ability to age. When winemakers ferment on the lees, a sediment of dead yeast cells, it protects the wine from oxygenation during the initial aging process and adds complexity and texture. That sets the wine up to mature for years to come.
Storage In-Store and At-Home
White wines are more sensitive to natural and artificial light than reds, and ageworthy whites are often packaged in colored glass to protect the wine. Never buy bottles that have been on display in direct sunlight. Also, reach for a bottle that’s behind the one stocked in the front of the shelf.
Don’t be shy about asking store managers about how a white wine was transported and stored. At home, protect whites from humidity and keep them in a cool storage room for optimum maturation.
An oak-aged Côte de Beaune from Burgundy may not taste as it should, says Goldstein, depending on how it was transported, stored, displayed at the store and housed.
If you fall in love with a white wine predisposed to age well, Goldstein says that thirsty wine lovers should perform one more test before they buy several bottles or cases to cellar.
“A simple rule of thumb is to open a bottle and nurse it for a few hours, to see how it changes,” he says. “If it improves from a pleasure standpoint after an hour or two, then you’re in good shape. Every 20 minutes in the glass is worth about six months in the cellar.”
The best temperature to store both whites and reds is 55°F. Higher temperatures will speed up the aging process. When it’s time to pour, Conlin recommends serving lighter-bodied whites at 48–52°F. Fuller-bodied whites will better express their full range of flavors between 52–55°F.
Say you have a few bottles of fruity, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc lying around. Drink them now, Goldstein says. White wines that should be enjoyed young isn’t a judgment call about the winemaker or brand. Instead, it’s often about the desired style.
Wines made in a quaffable, immediate style possess entrancing aromatic qualities that diminish over time.
“Their delicate floral esters are arguably at their most complex in their youth, and should be consumed within the first year or two of the vintage,” says Conlin.
Carefully selected whites from all over the world can still be thrilling at more than 200 years of age. One of Torres’s most memorable sips was an 1811 Riesling from Southwestern Germany’s Pfalz region.
Demanding the “freshest wine you’ve got. This year! No more of this old stuff,” like Steve Martin will just make you feel like The Jerk once you’ve seen how age can benefit a white wine. It can tease out new textures, complexities, a focused concentration, a superb richness that makes a white wine as worthy of the cellar as any of its ruby-hued counterparts.