I won’t tell you to pour your five-year-old white wines down the drain. But if you don’t drink them now, that’s what you might end up doing.
The fact is, 99.9 percent of all white wines in the world do not improve after a year or two of aging. They are at their best on release, which may be the spring following the autumn harvest.
This was brought into focus after tasting a bottle of 2008 La Follette Manchester Ridge Chardonnay from Mendocino Ridge. At $48 it is among the pricier California chardonnays; at 15 percent alcohol it is also one of the most potent.
It’s a big wine, well made in the bold California style, not too much oak. But I felt that, at less than two and a half years old, it was unlikely to get any better in the bottle.
There may have been some oxidation, or it may be going through what is called in the trade a “dumb” period, when some wines hibernate and later flourish.
So while I enjoyed the wine with a grilled red snapper, I was glad I didn’t have a whole case of it in my cellar. More and more with white wines, I’m drinking them as soon as possible after I buy them.
If a wine store is selling -- always at a discount -- a white wine more than three years old, you can bet it’s because it doesn’t sell very well upon release.
The vast majority of winemakers around the world give little thought to aging their white wines for more than a few months or a year in the first place.
I have, of course, had impressive examples of muscadet, pinot blanc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and riesling several years old. The greatest of all German riesling dessert wines are aged for many years and can be drunk with delight even decades later.
One of the white wines I’ve always been amazed by is Valentini’s trebbiano d’abruzzo, a varietal made in huge bulk by other producers and disdained by many in Italy as nothing but a workhorse white. Somehow Valentini manages to make his trebbiano long-lived, and I’ve had bottles a decade old that are still brilliant.
So, too, connoisseurs and producers of white Burgundies insist that the very finest, like Puligny-Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, and the rare Montrachet itself (which sells for about $2,000) need at least three and perhaps even ten years of aging to reach true maturity.
‘Onion Skin Taste’
I’m skeptical and have no plans to wait that long, even if I could afford such prices.
The Brits have long exhibited a preference for what they call an “onion skin taste” of old vintage Champagnes, which comes from a certain amount of oxidation, which does nothing for my palate.
I have tasted some fine old vintage Champagnes and applaud their longevity, but I much prefer younger, vibrant examples precisely because they are so fresh and blooming with fruit and acid.
Most people don’t order expensive ancient white wines, especially in more casual restaurants, like New York’s new Lyon bistro, where the best-selling wines are sauvignon blanc and French chardonnay. “I personally love old Chablis,” says owner Francois Latapie, “but I don’t have the clientele for it here.”
He continues, “They do like St. Veran, Macon, and Alsatian riesling, and the vintages I stock are the most recent, 2009 and soon 2010.”
There are, however, fine restaurants that proudly toe the line for older whites. “I look for wines that have phenomenon mineral force, concentration of fruit and can benefit from aging,” says Ruben Sanz Ramiro, sommelier at New York’s Veritas restaurant, which stocks 3,200 labels and 75,000 bottles, 25 percent of them white. “They become better integrated and complex aromatically.
“We have old white burgundies and even California chardonnay going back to the 1970s -- Stony Hill, Chalone, Mount Eden,” he added. “They are absolutely sound, with extraordinary acidity that protects the wines over time. In most cases when I recommend them, our guests are really pleased and surprised.”
You take a chance with every bottle of wine you open -- some might be corked, others oxidized by accident -- which is why a good wine steward is crucial when ordering expensive wines in a restaurant.
With whites, youth trumps age most of time. When a waiter at Napa & Co. in Stamford, CT, recently apologized because the bottle of Spanish albarino I ordered was a younger vintage than the one on the list, I just smiled and said, “Even better! Let’s see how it tastes.”
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)