Aged red wine is the stuff of legends and investments and cheesy movie lines. There’s little doubt that some red wines, as the saying goes, only get better with age.
But rarely is there any mention of aging white wine, even in movies that are specifically about wine, like Sideways. Enthusiasts are typically told that white wine is a drink best enjoyed when it is young, fresh, and fruity. “Most bottles taken off the shelf are drunk within 24 hours,” said David Rosenthal, head white winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. “We design our wines that way and so do many others.”
But despite the conventional wisdom, some white wines can also age so well that they, too, become worthy of wine country rants.
Long lived white wines
One of the white wines most famous for its aging potential is Chardonnay, said Cara Morrison, Chardonnay winemaker at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards. White Burgundy is the classic example, but many other Chardonnay — including high-quality versions from California and Oregon — can be ideal candidates.
Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Sémillon, which is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, also have excellent aging potential. And Brent Stone, COO and winemaker at King Estate, is a huge proponent of aging Pinot Gris.
“With Pinot Gris, people’s first reaction is quick to market, quick to drink, but that’s not the case,” he said. He also had very good aged white wine made with other Alsatian grapes, including Muscat and Gewürztraminer.
Cool climate wines, which tend to have lower alcohol and higher acidity, are often prime candidates for aging, Stone said. In addition, Rosenthal recommends looking for wines with highly concentrated fruit flavors. That often means grapes that have hung on the vine a long time, which allows the grapes to develop more flavor.
“From a chemistry standpoint, there are three characteristics that help wine age: the level of acidity, the amount and quality of tannins, and, for sweet whites, the sugar content,” said Rosenthal. “That’s why wines with higher acidity tend to age better: the acidity acts as a preservative.”
Oxidation, which causes browning and spoilage over time, is slowed by acid and low pH. “Sugar can also act as an agent to slow aging,” said Rosenthal. “Sugar slows the aging process and allows wine to age more gracefully.”
It’s why late-harvest sweet wines can also age so well, because both acid and sugar are preservatives.
From a less scientific, more sensory perspective, white wine should become less acidic and develop a more integrated flavor over time, says Morrison. “It gets a creamier texture. The bottle bouquet will not have as much fresh fruit and will get more toasty or aged characteristics.” Often, drinkers will notice flavors of brioche, crème brûlée, nuttiness, and oak spice.
“The perception of sweetness starts to decrease,” Rosenthal said. “When wines are young, the sweetness and fruitiness will enhance each other. As the fruitiness goes down, you don’t notice sugar as much.” Some wines, notably Chardonnay, tend to develop more richness and weight on the palate.
The nuts and bolts of aging
In general, white wines will not age as long as reds. Since they contain little to no tannin, they oxidize more quickly. In general, expect high-quality, ageable white wines to age for five to 15 years. To ensure they don’t oxidize, they should be stored like red wines, in a consistently dark, cool place, such as a wine fridge or basement closet. The ideal temperature is between 55 to 60 degrees.
And once they come out of the cellar, Stone recommends pairing aged white wine with Dungeness crab or cheese. “There’s still enough acidity in our Pinot Gris, even after five years in bottle, that it’s going to go with any creamy cheese,” he said. For Morrison, Parmesan or other hard, nutty cheeses are what immediately come to mind, with aged white wine.
“You probably want to focus on more subtle flavors, as opposed to big, bold, spicy flavors or really concentrated sauce,” said Rosenthal. “The wines, over time, get more complex, but more subtle and nuanced at the same time. It’s easier to come over the top with really intense flavors.” Stick with foods like pasta with a light cream sauce, and leave the pepper flakes with the doubts about the ageability of fine white wine.
6 white wines worth aging:
Brooks Wine is known as the House of Riesling in Oregon. Its 2016 Meyer Riesling tastes of lemon, flint, apple, and honeysuckle.
Pinot Gris is one of Oregon’s most widely-planted white grapes. Although biodynamic producer Keeler Estate produces many natural wines that are meant to be enjoyed young, its more traditional wines are outstanding – and its aged Pinot Gris is no exception. Look for flavors and aromas of tropical fruit, peach, and wet stone.
Sonoma is famous for Chardonnay, and it produces many that are highly age-worthy. With its focus on making high acid, food friendly, Burgundy-style Chardonnays, Jordan Vineyard and Winery Chardonnay is an excellent aged white wine to try. The oldest one currently available is the 2011, which is redolent of lemon curd, burnt sugar, yellow apple, and white flowers.
This long-time Napa winery produces Chardonnays that age beautifully. The 2014 Chardonnay is described as bright, nutty, and complex, with flavors of lemon, ginger cookie, and pear.
Sémillon is a classic aged white wine, and there are versions that can be purchased already aged. “The Sémillon wines of the Hunter Valley typically only come into their full expression when aged,” said Deborah Parker Wong, DWSET, a wine instructor and writer. She recommends trying this version from Australia. Flavors include creamy, ripe golden apple and pineapple, with hints of carnation, burnt sugar, gunflint, and lemon curd.