Maybe it was best that several members of a wine tasting society to which I belonged 40 years ago razzed me for liking what they called “old Chenin Blanc.”
Had they simply whispered about this behind my back, I might never have defended myself so vocally. That might have led to my failure to understand my own palate, as it evolved.
Nor was it Chenin Blanc that was at play. Really, it was my appreciation for many white wines that these people saw as tired, past their prime, senile, and any other euphemism that applies to something not as youthful as they preferred.
I have always been fascinated with how all white wines age.
Believe me, I do not go out of my way to track down 20-year-old Sauvignon Blancs, 30-year-old Viogniers, and 40-year-old Pinot Blancs. Such wines can be uninteresting, especially if the storage conditions have been less-than-perfect.
About 15 years ago, we visited Oregon’s acclaimed Willamette Valley. A friend/winemaker set up tasting of various wineries’ current-release Pinot Gris, a grape with which Oregon has had great success. One feature of these wines was their freshness.
A few wineries also sent along prior vintages, some as old as three vintages behind the current one. My friend pointed out that all of the wines were still currently available for sale, so we decided to try them, even knowing they would not be as fresh as the current releases.
And they weren’t. But what was fascinating was how they have developed secondary characteristics that indicated a level of maturity I had rarely seen and older Pinot Gris.
You might ask if the older wines were better or worse than the current vintages. The answer sort of depends who is doing the questioning and who is doing the answering. A few of the older Pinot Gris show such interesting aromatics that sniffing them was a joy.
Only one, however, had the acidity to actually taste better than the current releases. That one wine was a case in point: if a wine is made carefully to withstand the rigors of time, it could well be better than it would have been had it been released earlier.
About a dozen white wine grapes make wines that usually are better for additional time in the bottle.
Chardonnay is rarely one of them. But the other day, as I was rummaging through our below-ground wine storage basement, I found a bottle of 2005 Iron Horse Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, of which I once had a case. Given good storage conditions (less than 60 degrees year-around, no light, no vibration…), the wine had a chance to be good.
It was simply astounding.
I would not suggest that people keep their Chardonnays for 14 years, but Iron Horse Chardonnays have always been a special case. And those of us who were fortunate enough to consume this wine will attest to the greatness such wines can reveal.
The best Chardonnays can age. It is one reason why collectors of great White Burgundies hold on to their best wines until they reach such sublime proportions. In some cases, the wines are fine at age 25 — and some age a lot longer!
I have also experienced remarkable things with older dry Rieslings, Semillons (especially from the Hunter Valley in Australia), Chenin Blanc (Loire Valley in France), white Bordeaux, German Silvaner, Alsace Sylvaner, and Austrian Grüner Veltliner.
Then there are the whites that typically do not take bottle age gracefully. High-alcohol whites (around 15 percent) usually fall apart sooner than later. So do Viogniers, most domestic Gewurztraminers, and domestic Muscats.
And let us be completely clear about this: people who try to store wines at closer to 70 degrees (or more) will find, in short order, that the effort was a complete waste of time. Cool to cold is essential if any wine — white or red — is to display any charms at all after a decade or more.
Even then, wines with low acid or excessively high alcohol seem awfully difficult to make it beyond a few years after release. It is one reason why today’s average wind consumer has so little interest in aging any wines at all.
Of course there is a drawback here: The current generation will have a difficult time understanding any wines that have been perfectly stored for even a short period of time.
As far as I am concerned, they will be missing one of wine’s greatest gifts — the ability to speak a cogent English sentence, using the proper diction, despite having a faintly wrinkled brow.
Wine of the Week: 2018 South Coast Sauvignon Blanc, Temecula Valley ($16) –There are so many Sauvignon Blancs on the market these days that finding one with a distinctiveness isn’t easy. Napa makes superb Sauvignon Blancs that typically are a bit more like White Bordeaux (and can be expensive); Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley seems to have identified the Loire as a style to mimic, New Zealand is its own exotic (usually tantalizingly delicious) thing, and Lake County delivers a heady aroma in its soft Sauvignon Blancs. This version is fascinating because it is mainly from the so-called Musqué clone, with a slightly spicy aroma, and a completely dry aftertaste. Not easy to find; the winery/resort (southcoastwinery.com) will ship. Superb Winemaker Jon McPherson is an underrated talent working in this remote Southern California community.