21st April 2015
This topic was brought into focus by several wines I opened recently. The highlight of the year so far was a bottle of White Burgundy (Chardonnay). The wine was a 1983 1er Cru Chassagne Montrachet from Blain Gagnard.
Whilst the colour of the wine in the bottle was good and the level of the wine was still high in the bottle, I must admit that I did not have high hopes for the wine. This was a 35 year old Chardonnay after all. Even when the cork came out in great condition, I was still unsure.
The outcome, however, was nothing short of spectacular! The colour was golden, but without a hint of browning. The nose was aromatic and complex, yet balanced and harmonious.
The palate, however, was where the wine really shone. The fruit characters and minerality were still evident, while there was enough acidity to keep the wine alive and fresh. The mouthfeel and texture were a highlight and the length and complexity noteworthy.
A brilliant wine that was appreciated by both the aficionados and novices in the room. The age of the wine adding to the occasion. Would the wine have been better 20 years earlier we will never know, but it would have been nowhere near as memorable!
Should We Age White Wines?
The question of how long to age wine is a complex one, with a number of factors influencing the outcome. These include
- Grape variety
- Origin (country, region, vineyard)
- Cellaring conditions
- Method of closure
- Track record of the producer
- Personal preference
There is no hard and fast rule about what grapes age best.
- Riesling and Semillon from Australia have a long reputation of taking bottle age very well, transforming from fresh, vibrant wines into complex, mellow ones.
- The best Chardonnays age well, but style plays an important part here
- Varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Verdelho have a brilliant track record in the right hands
- I used to believe that Sauvignon Blanc (and SBS) from the new world did not age well, yet the advent of screw caps and the modification of style has changed my thoughts completely
A key component to making wines age-worthy is the amount of acidity in the wine. The acid tends to soften as the wine ages, meaning that low acid examples start to look flabby and flat.
Temperature and grape variety pay a key role here. Chardonnay or Riesling grown in very warm districts will struggle to maintain enough acid to warrant aging. Earlier ripening varieties such as Chenin Blanc however have excellent aging potential from warm regions like the Swan Valley, in the hands of the right producer.
Some wines are made to be consumed earlier than others. Fruit quality as well as winemaking inputs can have an impact here. If you are not sure, go for producers with the best track record.
Cabernet and Shiraz in particular, seem to tolerate less than ideal conditions and still age well in the medium term. White wines do not seem as robust. That said, it may still be worth tucking away a few bottles of Riesling in a cooler part of the house for a few years.
Method of Closure
Screw cap is king. Cork adds another (unwanted) variable to aging wines. The best corks are remarkable. Unfortunately, with very old wines, you may go through a few duds along the way.
Track Record of the Producer
Not sure what whites to buy to tuck away for a few years? Go with the wineries that have a reputation for making wines that appreciate in the cellar.
This is perhaps the most important point of all. If you are not accustomed to drinking old wine, you may not get as much joy as you might have thought . If you are not sure how long to keep a wine, in general, I would suggest erring on the side of caution.
A good wine opened a few years before its peak is still a good wine. A good wine that has been left too long may no longer offer drinking joy.