White wines are best young and fresh. Well, sometimes.
It’s common knowledge, right? Red wines are best with some age, and white wines are best young and fresh.
Well, no, and yes. And sometimes.
The only thing black and white in the wine world is the grape varieties —provided we don’t get started on teinturier grapes, the red-fleshed varieties. While it’s true that many red wines benefit from age, so do many whites. In fact, some of the world’s longest-lived wines are whites — maturing, improving and complexing for decades — some for up to 100 years, or more. But how to know which whites are cellar-worthy, which ones will improve and for how long? Turns out it’s a hazy shade of teinturier.
What makes a wine age?
Wine science is not conclusive when it comes to determining a wine’s ageworthiness, though it’s generally agreed that the key influencing factors are acidity, phenolics (see below) and grape variety. Sugar and free sulfur dioxide also play a role, as does the wine’s interaction with oxygen. Of course, closure and storage are also components to be taken into consideration (see sidebars). In reality, it’s not one key factor that determines a wine’s longevity, but rather the concentration and complex interaction among these traits.
For red wines, tannins from the grape skins provide much of the structure. Tannins are one of the phenolic compounds (polyphenols) that are found in highest concentration in the stems, seeds and skins of grapes. They act as a preservative, which is necessary when you’re thinking about holding/aging a wine for a long period of time.
The majority of white wines aren’t in contact with these elements to the degree that reds wines are, so they don’t have the preservation power of phenolics in the same way. The total amount of phenols found in a glass of red wine is somewhere around 200 mg, versus approximately 40 mg in a glass of white wine. Without that phenolic framework, white wines rely more on a backbone of acidity to create structure.
Acidity is not just the structural backbone of a wine; it also determines the pH level of that wine. Generally, the higher the acidity, the lower the pH. The benefit of high acidity/low pH is creating an environment unfavourable to microorganisms that could spoil the wine. For white wines that are not fermented on their skins, and thus afforded more phenolic protection, acidity and pH are critical.
The white grapes with the best aging potential thus tend to be those with a high amount of natural acidity. This is why Chenin Blanc and Riesling, high-acid grapes, have the potential to age for decades, and why cool-climate, higher-acid white Burgundy tends to have more ageworthiness than lower-acid California Chardonnay.
But Mother Nature is not that simple, nor that straightforward. Unfortunately, that simple acid equation doesn’t explain why Sémillon tends to age better than its blending cousin, the higher-acid Sauvignon Blanc, or why relatively low-acid/high-pH Marsanne ages better than high-acid/low-pH Roussanne. Likewise, Muscadet can be screaming with natural acidity, but age-worthy Muscadets are rare.
Balance is key: acidity is constant and does not change as a wine ages. Therefore, if the acid isn’t balanced with sugar, alcohol, et cetera, to begin with, the wine will show more of that imbalance over time. Similarly, if a wine doesn’t have a considerable concentration of flavours and aromas in its youth, it’s not going to create them in the bottle.
Some of the longest-lived white wines in the world are sweet — think about Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese. However, for all their ample sugar content, they have pitch-perfect acidity to match. For a white to have aging potential, you need a wine that is balanced in youth, with a high intensity of concentration and acidity.
As a white wine ages: what to expect
Though white wines make up a much smaller percentage of collectors’ cellars, some of the greatest wines for aging are whites. Also useful is the fact that many of these wines are relatively affordable to purchase in youth, something you don’t see as often with their age-worthy red cousins.
As white wine ages, its colour will eventually fade to a golden hue, then to brown. Such changes occur due to the chemical and oxygen reactions of the phenolic compounds in the wine. Much like how an apple will colour and fade once cut, grapes and their by-product wine will oxidize over time. Primary aromas of fresh fruits and flowers will change to a bouquet, whereas more secondary notes of dried fruit, savoury earth, honey and nuts will emerge. With all wines, there will come a point when the wine has reached its peak and will plateau for a time, before a gradual demise.
So which white grapes, and wines, are the best value to stock up on now for aging?
Riesling remains king, its potent draw being its natural and piercingly high acid, providing the wine with tremendous structure and allowing it to nimbly balance out ridiculous levels of residual sugar. The high-wire balancing act between razor acidity and ripe sugars is an addictive effort — for the vintner, the drinker and the collector. Germany is a natural here, and balanced German Rieslings, of all Prädikat levels, can regularly clock decades. Cooler-climate Australian Rieslings (from the Clare and Eden valleys, in particular) remain excellent value in our market for seriously age-worthy wines.
Chenin Blanc is another cellar star. Whether racy and dry, or heady and sweet, unmistakably constant in cared-for wines is a spiking acidity, apparent even through softening with time in wood or via heavy-handed winemaker intervention. Chenin can continue to mature for decades, transforming greengage and angelica notes into mushroom, salt, honey and toast. When noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) affects this grape, the results can be otherworldly — Bonnezeaux and Quarts-de-chaume are such cosmic examples.
Though Sémillon changes dramatically from youth through twilight, it always carries itself with an air of nobility. Young versions show bright, sometimes racy acidity, citrus and hay/herb notes. With bottle age, these wines tend towards fatness, with a waxy, honeyed heft that gains weight and complexity. And, of course, the long-lived sweet wines of Bordeaux — Sauternes —owe much of their complexity and credibility to Sémillon. Australia’s Hunter Valley Sémillon grapes are particularly well regarded for producing brilliant, age-worthy wines that compete with the top wines in the world — for a fraction of the price.
Marsanne is most commonly seen in the Rhône Valley, where it is often found arm in arm with blending partner Roussanne. On its own, however, Marsanne produces deeper hued wines that are rich and nutty, with hints of spice and pear, even in youth. As Marsanne ages, the wine takes on an even darker colour and the flavours can become more complex and concentrated, with an oily, honeyed texture. Perhaps due as much to its recognition as its availability, most people don’t think of reaching for this grape for the cellar, but it remains one of the best buys in Canada for cellar-worthy whites.
Tahbilk, in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria, Australia, has Marsanne vines dating back to 1927, and still make wines from these vines.
The winery also has a Museum Release program through which they release back vintages, allowing consumers the chance to taste property-aged Marsanne, even if they don’t have the means or interest to do it themselves. The wines below are currently available and around the $20 mark; if you can’t find them at your local shop, ask the stockist to look into finding you some.
91 Tahbilk Marsanne Museum Release 2008, Goulburn Valley, Victoria, Australia
Honeysuckle is scented with light macadamia, smoked stone, eraser and bitter lemon pith in this 8-year-old Marsanne, bottled under the “Museum Release” label. The palate flows with an oily slickness, though there is a subtle fine grip through to the very lengthy, ashen and salty finish. Pale gold in hue, this wine is lagging in its evolution more than some vintages, showing hints of the fruity characteristics of young Marsanne but with some of the secondary characteristics of the age-worthy grape. Has a ways to go still: 5 years easy. A cellar-worthy steal to buy now.
92 Tahbilk Marsanne 2010, Goulburn Valley, Victoria, Australia
Petrol, eraser and faint honeysuckle line the nose and the glass of this 6-year-old Marsanne, showing some of the grape’s age-worthy characteristics. A light golden-yellow hue, with bitter marmalade, scrubby herbs and lemon thistle carry along a light slick of oil, finishing with pear-skin spicing. A fine thread of persistent acidity runs the length of this lean-bodied wine right to the extended finish. This is all about tension and savoury stoniness. Another 6+ years easy.
90 Tahbilk Marsanne 2013, Goulburn Valley, Victoria, Australia
Pale green/yellow in hue, streaked with herbed salts, citrus, meadow grasses, subtle hedge and light white honey. Juicy and brisk in the palate, with frisky acidity and clean, tight citrus and green apple notes on a light/medium-bodied frame. An apple-skin grip adds a light savoury and textural element to an oil-slicked palate, finishing with fine spice. A shadow of age here, but after 5–10 years in the cellar (or beyond), this will be an entirely different wine.