Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cellaring White Wines

I read an interesting article the other day by Jancis Robinson, one of my favorite wine writers. She wondered why there is so much more expert wine writing focused on red wines than on white wines. (image from Ian Britton and FreeFoto.com)

There are a few possible explanations. But one leading reason is that most folks drink white wines young and fresh--they don't cellar them, and they often don't spend much money on them in the first place so they aren't seen as an investment that demands a lot of time and thoughtfulness. In the case of reds, however, many wine drinkers do age their wines, and are willing to pay hefty price tags for their favorites--both of which lead to a desire to know more about what will soon be taking up precious financial and storage resources.

Robinson points out that this ongoing media fascination with reds is especially odd given the kinds of food we tend to eat these days--chicken, fish, vegetables and other foods that go far better with white wines. And she provides some good tips on white wines that do improve with aging and deserve a place in your cellar. Chardonnay, for example, is a white varietal that often shines after a little cellar time. Recently, I pulled out two older chardonnays--a 2001 chardonnay from Burgundy, and a 2003 chardonnay from Oregon--to see whether they agreed with my palate. I didn't buy either one of these wines specifically to age, so take my findings with a grain of salt, but I felt that in neither case were the wines necessarily improved with their extra time in bottle.

First, there was the 2001 Domaine Anne Gros Chardonnay ($16.99 on sale; now I can't find it anywhere else, but you can buy a more recent vintage for under $30). Recent tastings that others have had of the 2006 wine suggest that this may be a wine that is best drunk young. This is the entry-level wine for the talented Anne Gros, and I think this was past its prime. The aromas of toast, butterscotch, and apple were very promising, but these notes did not emerge in the flavors. When you took a sip, it was flat a bit acidic on the palate. I didn't store it myself, so there is no way of knowing whether this was because of improper storage somewhere in its life, of whether it was just a bit tired.

The next older chardonnay I tried was the 2003 Argyle Chardonnay ($8.99, Costco; available elsewhere for around $14). This wine was sealed with a Stelvin closure, and was holding up pretty well with pear and lemon aromas that were muted and subtle. More pear flavors emerged as you drank the wine, which veered towards apple towards the end and was accompanied with a high, citrusy note. There was a creamy, tangy finish that reminded me of creme fraiche. What was interesting to me was to compare my note with one made by Jerry Hall at Winewaves in September 2005, almost two years ago. He found much brighter aromas, and much tarter flavors. The creme fraiche I seemed to taste was a "butterscotch twang" when Jerry drank the younger wine.

Based on this experience, I'm not sure how to proceed with cellaring white wines. Is it worth the space in my cellar, given my preference for crisper, fruitier whites? Am I buying the right kinds of white wine to cellar, or should I steer clear of chardonnay for the moment and focus on rieslings or some other varietal? If you've got experience cellaring white wines, I'd love to hear your advice. And if you have questions, like me, feel free to leave them in the comments in hopes someone will know the answer.


Richard A. said...

The only white wine that I have cellared for any length of time has been the Caymus Conundrum. I recently opened a 2001 and I felt it was as good as when it first came out. I don't think it really improved any with age, but it did not diminish either.

Erika said...

Hey Dr. Debs- It's an interesting question. The ageability of red wines certainly has a lot to do with the prevalence of red wine focused writing. Vintages lend themselves to natural discussion and since most whites can't be aged to the extent that reds can, the discussions are limited. Also I feel that people simply like reds more than whites. I'm not sure that I buy into what Robinson says about the red fascination being odd given the food "we eat these days." Though I lean toward white meats myself, I'd bet that there is still a vast majority of people who gobble up steak and Cabernet on a regular basis.
In terms of your questions I'm afraid I am no help as I am one of the many people who drinks their whites immediately!

Erika said...

Amen Richard. Conundrum is a great idea. The slight sweetness lends itself well to age.

Orion Slayer said...

If I remember correctly from reading The Wine Bible a wine needs to be high in:


to be able to age well. White wines are by nature not very tannic, so you need a wine high in acidity or fruit to age well.

I had a 20 year old Hungarian sweet wine at a tasting in August that was very nice. That's the extent of my experience. Can't wait to see what others have learned.

Sonadora said...

Hmm, I don't really intentionally age much of my wine at the moment, I'm too eager to drink it. Only the occasional bottle gets stashed away for very long, and really only after I've already had one of that bottle and decided it's not ready to drink. Though I do actually have a few chardonnays and a few late harvest white varietals that are clunking around in the racks and are approaching several years of age, quite by accident. I think I'll leave them a bit longer and pull them out next spring when they should all be around 5. (If we can wait that long!)

ryan said...

We just did a post last month on this subject. Having tasted about 5 old(7-8) whites from Portugal. The truth is a lot of white wines can age and evolve. In Galicia winemakers there say that most of the better albarinos should be aged for 2-5 years, some even longer. I've had a few, and I do like the complexity that comes from it.

Othewise, I'm always a sucker for the more obvious whites that age well: STICKIES! Old reisling, sauvblanc, Chenicn Blanc from the loire, and tokays...YUM the older the better.

Marco said...

Like Ryan, my recent experience has been that Albarino (Alvarinho in Portugal) when well made from premium fruit is capable of aging well, maybe even improve a bit within 3 years. But to address the topic, in general... whites simply cannot be aged as well as reds for the reasons that orion slayer states. This may play a role in the coverage that white wines get in the print media, but there are probably other more convincing reasons.

Tish said...

In my experience, no whites age better than sweet whites, particularly Sauternes, Tokaji from Hungary, and German or Alsace Rieslings (at varying levels of inital sweetness). THese wines must have ample fruit and acidity at the outset, though, because there is no tannin to help out in preserving the wine. Anyone who hasn't tried an aged Riesling is missing out on one of the most complex liquids on earth. These wines change drastically from their delicate, ripe youth... and become truly provocative with aromas of minerals, petroleum and sweetish funk.

RougeAndBlanc said...

Dr. Debs,
Recently I opened my only bottle of 96 Simi Chardonnay Reserve. This wine has shed the high tone fruits but gained depth since. Very nice.
Alsom, wines made from Muscadet and Romorantin are well worth the wait, but wines of these 2 grapes are not known to be 'crisp and fruity' tough.

Scott said...

I agree with cellaring the Chardonnay for a bit. It may make more sense to put the Chard away then say, a Pinot Noir.

If you like white wine,check out my Pinot Gris site:

Jim Gordon said...

Dr. Debs: I think people are missing a satisfying part of the wine experience if they don't drink some aged whites now and then. Pedigreed white Burgundy like Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet, German Riesling (even basic Kabinett or Spatlese), good white Bordeaux from Pessac-Leognan: they all age well for 5 - 10 years. A few years ago Thom Elkjer and I did a fun retrospective tasting of California Chardonnays--yes, the sweet, alcoholic, oak bombs that many people dis--but a big bunch of them were excellent at 10 years old. I recall Robert Mondavi Reserve, Wente Riva Ranch, Au Bon Climat and Hanzell, of course, and quite a few others having transformed into something special.

Dr. Debs said...

Wow, this is enormously helpful. I do age sauternes, and have bought my first Tokaji. Tish and Jim, I've never had a riesling I could resist, so I haven't kept one long enough to find out. I will keep experimenting, looking into some more chardonnay and albarino options. Meanwhile, welcome Jim and thanks to everyone else for the great advice. Keep it coming--and I'll keep you posted on my progress.

David McDuff said...

Hello Dr. Debs,
It's important to remember that not all Chardonnay is created equal. I'm afraid it's not a vine that's likely to reward cellaring when in the context of under $20 bottles, the occasional good value Chablis aside. A basic bottle like the Anne Gros Chardonnay (which comes from a red wine dominated area of Burgundy) was probably not intended to be kept.

Move south to the Cote de Beaune or north to Chablis and then put out a little extra dough for a Premier Cru bottling from a good producer and you've got your hands on something that might just have a pretty long future ahead of it. I enjoyed a 1985 Meursault "Perrieres" from Domaine Ampeau not long ago; I'd say it was just hitting it's mid-life crisis.

In the under $20 range, here are a few suggested starting points:

- dry and off-dry Rieslings from good producers in Germany (Mittelrhein and Saar in particular for good values)
- Savennieres, Vouvray and Montlouis, some of the great and still under-valued Chenin based wines of the Loire
- Muscadet (rougeandblanc was right). It has a reputation, undeserved, of not being ageworthy. Some of the region's better producers make vieilles vignes and "vin de garde" versions which can drink well at 10-15 years. And they rarely top $20.


Dr. Debs said...

Thanks, McDuff, for confirming my suspicions on the Anne Gros. I do have some Loire whites that I plan on putting away for a little while at least, and will try the muscadet, too, which I tend to buy fairly regularly but drink fairly young. Thanks for this information. Very helpful.