I recently received a solicitation, from an enterprise I will not shame by naming, that included an online article presenting the brilliant aperçu that, yes indeed, white wines can age. After a lip-service concession that whites from Rioja, Burgundy, and the Jura (?!), plus German Riesling and Australian Semillon, are known to last for decades, it went on to list 15 “favorite” cellar-worthy whites from other regions.
This perspicacious enumeration omitted all of Spain and Italy, and recommended Bordeaux – all of it, including apparently the notably long-lived wines of the fabled Entre-Deux-Mers – as well as Alsace – I guess all of its varieties too. It also listed individual varieties from Greece, South Africa, Napa, Oregon, and Washington, all of these too in their entirety, with no qualifications about maker, style, region, or anything else.
I pity the poor souls trying to shop for white wines to cellar on the basis of those recommendations.
Really, it should not be news to anyone that all sorts of white wines from all sorts of places are capable of wonderful and rewarding bottle-aging.
Serious wine journalists of every palatal persuasion have been trumpeting that information for decades now, and while a newbie can be forgiven for not knowing it, anyone halfway serious about wine should already have experienced it.
The important point to be made is not that some white wines can age well, but which ones, and how you are to know them. Great as white Burgundy can be, not every bottle that emanates from that small stretch of France will survive beyond five years – and that is equally true of white Graves, of Fiano di Avellino, of Rioja whites, of Rhine and Moselle Rieslings, of Alsace Riesling and Pinot Gris.
Who made the wine, in what vintage? Is it from the best sites, or some outlying parcel just barely entitled to a prestigious appellation? Those facts matter: They constitute the difference between buying yourself a potential treasure and throwing your money away.
What I’ve just said implies that repute – of the zone, the maker, the vintage – should be the key determinant for a canny white wine shopper. By and large, that is true, but like so many such truths, it’s hardly absolute. As with any other category of wine, any one of those elements could outweigh the others. A vintage may be so fine in a particular zone – some recent vintages of Chablis, for instance – that you’re safe with almost any purchase. Or a producer may be well known for turning out great wines in off-years. Or some producers may be so exceptional that their wines, from an otherwise middling area, are always age-worthy.
I can give you a fine example of the last: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from the late, great Edoardo Valentini. A more unlikely great white wine is hard to imagine: Trebbiano is the blessing and the curse of Italian viticulture. Hardy and prolific, it grows everywhere and bears heavily, usually producing very ordinary wine that is used predominantly in blends. It has many different clones, though few of them are prized. Trebbiano di Soave is one, and another (I’m tempted to say the other) is Valentini’s distinctive Trebbiano d’Abruzzo.
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Trebbiano-based wines made in Abruzzo (or anywhere else, for that matter) is meant to be consumed as young and fresh as possible, because such charm as these wines possess fades quickly. Valentini’s wine is utterly different – round, full-fleshed, deeply mineral and fruity, with enough tannin from skin contact and enough natural acidity to sustain it for the long haul. How long? Well, I’ve drunk 25-year-olds that were still fresh and lively, so much so that I kicked myself for pouring them prematurely.
I quite recently opened my last bottle of Valentini’s 1998 Trebbiano for a dinner with friends I knew would recognize its allure. None of us was disappointed, even though the wine was only 17 years mature. What was it like? I’ll quote Burton Anderson’s landmark book, Vino, about his experience of a younger specimen:
[T]he Trebbiano is in a class by itself, unquestionably the finest wine of that name I have tasted. The 1974 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, drunk in 1979, had everything a dry white wine should have plus the elegance, breed and strength of character that even some of the finest lack. I would not hesitate to compare it to the white wines of Puligny Montrachet.
The comparison with great white Burgundy is one that many tasters have repeated since. In fact, it is probably even truer now than it was in ’79: As Valentini’s hand got surer and his vines aged, that round, mouth-filling Burgundian quality only intensified. My ’98 displayed it beautifully, even the next day when I finished the little left in the bottle.
Edoardo Valentini was not a lovable man. He could be as hard and exacting with people as he was in his winemaking. Every year he sold off most of his harvest, keeping only the very finest grapes for his deliberately small production. In the years since he has passed on, his son has very successfully maintained the quality level he so arduously pursued, and the Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo remains a monument to what can be achieved by individual effort.
And that brings me back to the original point of this post. Of course white wines can age, sometimes magnificently. It all depends on the What and the Who and the Where and the When, and there are many well-informed journalists out there who have been trying to preach this gospel for some time now. Go read Ed McCarthy and Mary Mulligan, go read Kerin O’Keefe, Tom Hyland, Michael Apstein, Charles Scicolone – even some of my previous posts and articles. The information you need to shop intelligently and fruitfully is there for the gleaning.