Take a look around a few wine cellars. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now tell me: What’s the one thing that is missing or grossly underrepresented in most of them? Vintage port? ’61 Bordeaux? That wild Jura wine the guy at the wine shop told you about? Close, at least, on the last one.
By and large, most wine collections suffer from a severe lack of ageable white wines—an affliction I’ve long been dedicated to curing.
Why are red wines considered the meat of any good cellar, but whites are simply something to keep around for when you cook fish or “that couple” comes over? Much of the problem can be attributed to the fact that so few wines, white or red, are built to age. By most professional assessments, less than 10 percent of red wine is something worth cellaring, and that figure drops off the charts for white wines. In fact, most white wines really are best drunk “fresh,” meaning within two or three years of fermentation.
It’s no wonder, then, that these wines are overlooked by most, especially those with limited space to store wine properly. But just as with red wine, finding cellar whites is simply a matter of looking for the right characteristics when the wines are young.
The first thing to seek out is acidity. The main reason that most wines, red or white, can’t survive past the five-year mark is lack of acid. It’s a preservative, and it fades over time, so a wine that seems too tart and acidic now might just be perfect in 10 or 15 years. For winemakers, therein lies the problem: With most wine drinkers, bracing acid (even in a white wine) is often too intense, and gets shunned pretty quickly. Not by you, though. Not anymore.
Of course, with any wine, the single most important aspect is balance, so a wine that is loaded with electric acidity is going to need body and richness to even the scales. This simply means wines with more residual sugar and a fuller, viscous texture. So often, though, people are quick to shun “sweeter” wines like Spatlese Rieslings and demi-sec Vouvrays, but the problem in most of those cases is the mirror of the acidity quandary: Most sweet(er) wines like this lack the proper acidity to create proper balance.
As you can see, the rarity of ageable white wine is understandable, but it is not acceptable. There exists an entire realm of amazing wine out there, right under our noses, for (oftentimes) a pittance.
From Loire Valley, France: Chenin Blanc. From Vouvray and Mont-Louis to Savennieres and Coteaux du Layon, the Loire Valley is home to many of the most amazing white wines on the planet. Chenin Blanc grows here like nowhere else, and its winemakers know how to treat it. These are wines of such amazing depth, focus, and grace that ignoring them in your cellar for a decade or two almost seems like a cruel joke—that is, until you taste a 15-year-old Vouvray Moelleux, and your life is forever changed.
From Alsace, France: Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, and Muscat. Alsace is magnificent country located at the base of the Vosges mountains, facing Germany—in fact, much of the culture there is decidedly Bavarian, including the winemaking styles. While you won’t see the same strict adherence to Riesling that you will in Germany, the wines are, as with many of those from Germany, often built to last. Riesling is considered king, but seek out some Vendange Tardive (late harvest) and SGN (dessert wine) for aging and you will be highly rewarded.
From Bordeaux, France: Sauternes. Even most casual wine drinkers are familiar with Sauternes—the sometimes-syrupy golden dessert wine that boasts the only non-red “First Growth” designation in Chateau D’Yquem. And while that wine fetches a hefty tariff, there is a plethora of more affordable offerings out there. What many people don’t know is that balanced Sauternes—those with enough acidity to stand up to the sweetness—age incredibly well.
From Germany: Riesling. This is the place for Riesling, and it’s how most people know that varietal. Unfortunately, there has been a glut of sweeter Rieslings in the U.S. without the proper acidic balance, which has scared many people away from them. You just need to give Riesling another chance, though. Again, finding the right balance is key. If an Auslese Riesling is flabby and lacking acid when it’s young, well, it’s not going to be any better in a few years. But a sweeter Spatlese with electric acidity can often live for a decade or more, and turn into something transcendental.—Evan Williams
Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wineguildcville.com.