Can white wine age?
"Is there ever any reason to cellar a white wine? Are there whites that can develop in the cellar?"
Thanks to reader Ed Y. for this question, which touches on an aspect of keeping and enjoying wine that I haven't addressed for a while. We frequently talk about aging red wines, with the understanding that even in this category, the lighter and fruitier specimens aren't usually meant for aging.
The concept, if not the actual practice, of "cellaring" fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone reds and their counterparts from Italy, Spain and the New World, is well-known. Keep these ageworthy reds lying quietly on their sides in a cool (55F/13C), dark place for a few years, and they'll gradually shed their tart and tannic youthful astringency, replacing it with a mellow complexity that can't be achieved as well in any other way.
Ageworthy reds typically gain longevity from tannins, an astringent substance that most red grape skins impart. White wines, on the other hand, are made without the skins and are rarely tannic. But there are other elements to seek in ageworthy reds and whites: Most of all, look for good balance between fruit and acidity. A wine that's "fat" and "flabby" in its youth is more likely to fall apart than improve with age in the bottle. A wine that's overtly oaky or one that smells more of butter or caramel than fruit isn't likely to reveal elegance with age. I often hear wine enthusisasts hopefully predicting that youthful oak will "integrate," but I can't say that I've often seen it happen.
Just like reds, but even more so, most white wines are made to enjoy while they are young and fresh, but here are a few noteworthy exceptions:
Many of these whites can age for a decade, and the best can go for 20 years or even longer. You'll occasionally see Sauternes from the '50s selling at auction for record prices.
But even more than with red wines, good cellar conditions are critical. Aging whites just won't work on the wine rack in the long term, unfortunately. The line between a warm, complex richness and mere Sherrylike oxidation is a fine one, and whites kept under warm storage conditions - even air-conditioned room temperature - will rarely last.
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It wouldn't make much sense for me to offer you a tasting report on a well-aged white, since you wouldn't have much luck finding the same wine at retail. Instead, let's move in the opposite direction for our first look at the brand-new vintage of 2004. This bold and fruity Sauvignon Blanc comes from South Africa, where the upside-down seasons in the Southern Hemisphere bring us autumn and the harvest in March, April and May.
Rostenberg 2004 "Brampton" Western Cape Sauvignon Blanc ($7.49)
This is a transparent, almost watery pale wine, with just a hint of brassy green to give it color. There's plenty of characteristic Sauvignon Blanc personality on the nose, gooseberry and grapefruit and a pleasant herbaceous quality that's more like leaves than grass. Bright and bold on the palate, it boasts ripe mixed-citrus flavors, grapefruit and lemon-lime; tangy acidity holds up fresh, juicy citrus fruit in a long finish. U.S. importer: Cape Classics, NYC. (Oct. 26, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: The snappy citrus flavors went nicely with a dish crafted to match, duck-breast "scaloppine" with a quick reduction sauce of browned butter with lemon, lime and tangerine juice and accents of bay leaf and sage. (Check tomorrow's Wine Advisor FoodLetter for the recipe.)
VALUE: One of my top values of the year at this low-end price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Bright and juicy fruit makes it hard to resist now, although the high-tech metal screw cap will hold its freshness more effectively than a natural cork. Still, best enjoyed during the next year or two.
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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004