Here’s a fun science experiment. Next time you buy some Riesling, consider grabbing a few extra bottles. Then hide them somewhere dark and cool for around 10-15 years.
Pop one open every couple years to see how it evolves. If you can wait a decade or more you might find a completely new wine has emerged. Like a caterpillar to a butterfly, a young Riesling can develop into something altogether different and beautiful with time. Compared to its younger, simpler self which showed zippy minerality and subtle stone fruit flavors, a mature Riesling emerges more complex and heightened, with completely new aromas and a richer flavor.
Age this, not that
You definitely do not want to stick any old Sauv Blanc or Chardonnay in the cellar for a decade. Age-worthy white wines usually need a perfect balance of bold fruit and alcohol, along with some combination of high acidity, sugar, and tannin. Storage is also key, as big changes in temperature or exposure to light can reduce their aging potential.
Typically you can expect a few things happen as white wine ages.
A young white wine might emerge from the bottle a bright yellow color. Over time that brightness fades into a darker honeyed yellow. If it has a decent amount of residual sugar (like Sauternes) it might even turn a shade of brown as phenolic compounds oxidize and sugars start caramelizing.
Initial bright fruit flavors take a backseat after a few years. Expect fresh pear to morph into poached pear. Bright lemony citrus transforms into a lemon meringue type of flavor. All sorts of incredible, rich and round secondary flavors emerge, from honeysuckle and petrol to and caramel and toasty hazelnut.
Some whites, like a Mosel Riesling for example, might start out with gentle, almost imperceptible aromas. Over time they can evolve dramatically, developing much richer notes of stone fruit, honey, straw, beeswax and other darker notes – think earthy, truffles, and roasted coffee.
10 great white wines to age
In particular, Vouvray from the Touraine region and its pumped up brother Savenierres from the Anjou of the Loire Valley make excellent choices. Savenierres often brings high alcohol and high acidity, two key components that help it age well. Dry Chenin Blanc can remain in the cellar for 10 years, while the sweeter Vouvray Moelleux can easily be kept for decades, a lifetime even.
White Bordeaux is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes with a little Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris added in the blend. It’s often aged in oak which can lend more phenolic compounds that help preserve it longer. Stick to higher end producers from Pessac-Leognan, which can show their best side after 3-5 years. Some of the very best examples can age gracefully for decades. Heck, some collectors of Chateau Haut Brion swear that the Haut Brion Blanc is more ageworthy than their First Growth Red.
If you want something to gift a grandchild, Sauternes might be your best bet. The best vintages bring high acid and sugar levels, along with low water content and unique acids from the botrytized grapes. They can last many, many decades. Expect more focused honey, nutty, and sweet lemon creme flavors to stand out with age.
Riesling makes a strong case for offering the most dynamic and interesting evolution with time. Thanks to its bright acidity, a quality dry version can rest easy for 10-20 years or more, while a semi-dry or sweet Riesling can easily push 20-30+ years. One of the most unique aspects of an aged Riesling is the development of a petroleum/kerosene aroma and flavor that some people absolutely love.
New World Chardonnay is generally best when young, but good White Burgundy is a whole different story. Wait 5-10 years and you might find it entered a completely new dimension. Some people like to wait 20-30+ years before opening a bottle, although oxidation seems a common nuisance as they age.
Many Premier Cru and most Grand Crus make for the best choice, and you should look to the Côte de Beaune and Chablis if longevity is your aim. Chablis has a colder climate and limestone soil that infuses the wines with a rippling, age-defying acidity and briny minerality. Wines from the Côte de Beaune region (specifically Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet) take on a fleshy, creamy style thanks to the warmer weather and preference for oak aging.
This is some geeky stuff. White Rioja is traditionally known for its old-school, oxidative style that makes it sort of an acquired taste. It only accounts for 10% of Rioja’s production, so it’s not exactly easy to find. Made from Viura and Malvasia. They follow the same strict classification sytem of Rioja, and a Grand Reserva Rioja Blanca spends around six months in oak and four years aging. It shows a drastically different side compared to its unoaked, made-for-early-enjoyment “Joven” sibling. These wines are known for developing lots of nutty and oxidative flavors of grilled pineapple caramel, honey, hazelnut and smoky oak.
Here’s one for adventurous types who enjoy diaper-pail-smelling cheese, postmodern literature, and extreme body piercing. The remote, miniscule Jura region in France delivers a white wine called Vin Jaune. Just like White Rioja it’s high on the, geeky, hipster-sommelier swigging scale. You probably don’t want to serve this to your Chardonnay loving mother-in-law (or do you??).
Vin Jaune is made from Savagnin grapes, and vinified in an oxidative style for a minimum of six years. After bottling it will remain fresh for 10-20 years or much longer. This strange wine comes in a squat bottle that holds 620ml, which represents the amount of fermented wine leftover from a liter of pressed juice. The deep yellow juice delivers bold, sweet, nutty aromas and takes hold of your palate with with nutty, maple syrupy, spicy curry-like flavors. Yet it’s bone-dry, with high acidity.
When you hear Rhone, you probably think of red wine. Rightly so, since some of its most popular regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas, and Cote-Rotie earn attention for their reds. But a good white Rhone wine can stand the test of time, and there’s one in particular that stands out as the obvious collector’s choice. We’re talking about White Hermitage, one of Thomas Jefferson’s absolute favorites, which hails from steep hills in the northernmost part of the region. Here Marsanne and Rousanne join forces to form a massive, full-bodied white that begs for time in the bottle before it reaches full potential, at which point it shows fleshy layers of pineapple, apricot, and honey drizzled toast.
A great vintage Champagne is worth cellaring for decades. Non-vintage bubbles might not last as long because they include grapes from different years, so the uniformity just isn’t quite there. The high acidity helps, but so does the carbon dioxide which acts as a natural preservative. Many producers will hold onto old vintages, releasing them periodically over the years. The absolute best vineyards go toward Prestige Cuvées, which need around 15 years aging to really hit their stride.
Australia’s Hunter Valley is ground zero for age-worthy Semillon. These generally have a lower alcohol content, and show timid notes of grass and fig when young. With age those aromas can blossom into something extraordinary, revealing complex layers of beeswax, lanolin, tobacco leaf, and cigar wrapper.
In today’s world of instant downloads and next day delivery it’s hard to resist opening a refreshing Albariño, Gruner, or Pinot Gris. We get that. There’s definitely a geeky side to many aged white wines that some people simply love, and others just won’t understand. Honestly, you probably shouldn’t wait too long before opening most whites. But if you can squirrel away a few extra bottles, it just might be worth the effort. The hardest part might be storing up enough patience.