Americans seem to be aware of red wine as something with aging potential, but with whites we tend to assume we have to drink it now or it’ll go bad. That’s kind of true of some whites. And PS, some reds! But there are a lot of us missing out on the exquisite experience of opening a structured white that’s been hanging around for a while. As with reds, their flavor profiles and textures change, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically.
The first time I tasted an eight-year-old white wine I was in Rome, and I thought the guy at the enoteca was trying to put one over on me. I’d asked for a glass of something to nurse because I was early for a party but not early enough to justify going home. He said he had just the thing and handed me a bottle of Soave. I said, in mixed Italian and English, that just because I was from the States didn’t mean I was a dummy, that the stuff was almost certainly total plonk and to feel free to get me something actually good.
He said “Look at the date, dummy.” The wine was almost a decade old.
“You can age Garganega?” I’d only ever experienced Soave wines as light, young, faintly watery wines from the bottom shelf alongside the straw-basket Chaintis.
“Now she listens,” he said irritably to the ceiling. “Sit.”
Two glasses later I had discovered two things. First, drinking makes me fluent in Italian, which was cool. More importantly, the wine had not turned into vinegar or poison or flavorless swill. It had transformed into a rich, deep-gold elixir with nutty undertones and an almost sherry-like character. It was the best Soave I have ever had and ever since that trip I’ve scanned shops for Italian whites that are more than a year old. You never find them, so you do have to get used to the concept of aging your own, preferably in temperature and humidity controlled conditions. Which I don’t totally have, so my quest for aged whites goes largely unfulfilled.
But I’ve done some homework, and if you’d like to know which wines to put away and which ones not to bother with, here are a few pointers.
Cork: Screw-capped wines are becoming more popular and there are many advantages to them, but what they can’t do gracefully is age (that goes for screw-capped reds as well). Wine aging requires a subtle but constant transfer of gases, and corks are just permeable enough to do it. Screwcaps are not. So stock the fridge with twisty-top wines for random Tuesday night imbibing, but they’re not your best friend in the cellar.
Structure: White wines with a fair amount of body age well. By “body” I mean viscosity and residual sugar, tannin and acidity. Late harvest wines have this. Champagnes have this. Some other still whites have this. Don’t plan on sitting for ten years on a Pinot Gris or Gruner Veltliner or anything that’s hard to distinguish from water.
Oak: Wines aged in oak barrels tend to do better in the cellar than those aged in steel, or concrete.
Climate: Cool climate wines tend to have higher acidity. This is your friend in the cellar. Look for regions like Alsace, Alto Adige, Champagne, Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and other cool spots.
Whites that age for 5-10 years with no problem: Sauvignon Blanc. Greek Assyrtiko. Some Austrian Gruner Veltliners. West Coast Gewurtztraminers. (Probably German ones too, I have not personally tried it.) French Bordeaux Blanc (Chardonnay). South African Chenin Blanc. And as my enoteca guy pointed out, good Soave.
Whites that age for decades: German Riesling. French Champagne. French Hermitage Blanc. Some Chardonnays from Oregon and California. Also, botrytized wines (not all of them, do your research), and dessert-in-a-glass wines like Eiswein, Sauternes and Baumes-de-Venise.
So, there you go. Don’t limit your wine cellar (or basement cabinet) to just reds. The right white wine will get better with age too.