Old White Wines

Last week Diane and I cooked up a big lobster. They have been less expensive than usual this summer, and a simple boiled lobster with drawn butter sounded very attractive for a summer evening’s dinner. So in honor of the rare-for-us crustacean, I pulled out an old Chablis Grand Cru – 2001 Les Clos, the smallest of the Grands Crus zones, from Voceret.

I got quite worried when I poured it. It was very deeply golden, looking considerably older than its eleven years. And the first taste was worrisome too: The wine didn’t show much of anything – it was simply blah. I know my storage isn’t the best (by a wide margin), and I began to fear I had kept this wine too long for the conditions. But there was a chance it just didn’t much like the Irish smoked salmon we’d chosen for a first course, so I suspended judgment until we could taste the wine with the lobster it was intended for.

Maybe you can guess the outcome of this story. By the time the lobster was cooked, drained, cracked open, served, and tasted, the wine had changed. Alongside the lobster, it immediately tasted better than it had with the salmon, then – as it sat and opened – it got better and better, richer and richer, showing more and more of the classic Chablis minerality and an enjoyable edgy Chardonnay character. Not buttery – the lobster’s dressing took care of that – but the sharper, more white-fruit character of Chardonnay, which is too often submerged in young wines or heavily barriqued wines. The wine was at its intriguing best as we finished it, making me wish I had treated it as I would a ten- or eleven-year-old red wine, and pulled its cork an hour or two beforehand.

By that point – too late to profit by it, of course – I remembered that I had had similar experiences before with older white wines, both from France and from Italy. That is, on several occasions over the past few years, I had come across wines deeply golden with age, some of them even initially smelling oxidized to such an extent that some of the tasters I was with didn’t bother to try them. Just like my Chablis, several of these wines simply got better and better as they opened, until, after an hour or two, they had transformed themselves into classic mature examples of their type.

My friend and colleague Charles Scicolone confirms my experience. He was part of several of these tasting groups, so we shared some of the “aha!” moments, and he has had similar experiences on his own – so I know I’m neither delusional nor making a silk purse out of sow’s ear of a wine. The fact is that some seemingly moribund older white wines aren’t dead, catatonic, or even sleeping: They’re just closed, and need time to breathe and open.

Obviously, most white wines aren’t capable of this kind of long aging: They’re built for consumption within at most five years of bottling, in many cases even less than that. But the right grapes in the right hands in the right places can yield wines that will age and mature into the same sort of depth and complexity that we usually associate exclusively with red wines.

I’ve had remarkably enjoyable older bottles of many kinds. From France, Premier and Grand Cru Chablis and Burgundy; Alsace Riesling and especially Pinot Gris; Chateauneuf blanc and Hermitage blanc.

From Italy, I’ve had wonderful older bottles of an array of great wines: Jermann’s Vintage Tunina and Capo Martino; Mastroberardino’s Fiano di Avellino; Villa Bucci Riserva from Le Marche; Valentino’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; Frescobaldi’s Pomino bianco; Antinori’s Cervaro della Sala are just some of them.

I’m very curious about other people’s perhaps parallel experiences. If you have opened any bottles of white wine, initially thought them gone, and then discovered later on that they were quite fine, I’d like to hear about it – especially if you made any notes about the amount of time it took for your wine to come around. Tell me what sorts of white wine you have enjoyed as antiques, and whether you think they survived because of the quality of the vintage, the treatment in the cellar, or the character of the grapes. Most wines of any color are drunk too young, and whites are not often deliberately given long cellaring, so there’s a lot to be learned here, and I’d like to start amassing some accurate information for my own use and to share with any interested parties.

7 Responses to “Old White Wines”

  1. Eric Lecours Says:

    Ciao Tom, nice piece. The challenge of ageing wine, whites in particular, is the cost, not just the carrying cost but the number of bad bottles you have to go through to get to a good one. When you cellar six bottles of a wine for 10 years and only three show well, you can’t help but regret not drinking them earlier. I experienced that recently with Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2000, a wine that was singing on release.

    That said, I recently added Benanti Pietramarina 2002 to my list and it is drinking fabulously.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      You’re right, eric. It’s a sad fact that white wines are a more risky proposition for aging than reds. That said, however, I still feel the rewards are worth the risk. And isn’t that Benanti Pietramarina gorgeous?

  2. Ole Udsen Says:

    Hi Tom,

    Excellent post. I, too, enjoy well-aged white wines, and have bottles in my cellar going back to the early nineties (Chablis Les Clos 1992 from Raveneau, for example). Great white wine ages fantastically well, and the likes of Meursault from Lafon or Corton-Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray can easily turn 20 and be even better, deeper than in youth. In recent years some of my favourite aged white wines have been the Villa Bucci Riserva, that you also mention, and the fantastic Vermentino wines from Capichera in Sardinia. I still have bottles of 2002 and 2003 from Capichera, and they turn enormously minerally and fat when aged. Recommended.

    Best regards

  3. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom, yes we have shared many of these “aha” moments together. In Amalfi this June I had a bottle of the 2000 Bucci Riserva, it was very dark in color and the waiter decanted the wine and it was wonderful. In the winter at SD26 I had a bottle of 1974 Arneis from Bruno Giacosa. It looked old,we opened it and let it breath in the glass-I could not believe how good it was- there was no sign of oxidation! I would have guessed it as a wine at least 30 years younger. We have drank together the Fiano and Greco from Mastroberardino when they were over 30 old and some of them tasted like young wines. The only way to tell if the wine is good is to open it !

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    My experience as well. Great older whites not only benefit from aging but also at least an hour’s breathing in a decanter. In the case of great white Burgundies and Grand Cru Chablis, they really need more aeration than red Burgundies. I often decant white Burgundies but don’t decant most red Burgundies

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      That’s an interesting point about decanting. I confess I hadn’t even considered doing that, but it makes sense. Thank you for the suggestion.

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