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Built for Endurance, not Speed

Built for Endurance, not Speed

Most (read nearly all) still wines - whites, rosés, and reds - are produced for immediate consumption, within 12 to 24 months of release. Likewise, the preponderance of current wine purchases are aged by the end user for 48 hours before pulling the cork.  Yet a thoughtfully stocked cellar will include wines that are meant for the next two years’ drinking, eliminating a mad dash to the store at the last moment or, worse yet, running out of supply. 

You should age wines so that they taste better, PERIOD. Try an experiment. If you like a wine and can buy a case, tuck it away with the intent to drink a bottle every six months. Take note of the wine's development along the way. Eventually, when one bottle seems to be “less good,” than the one before, drink another within a week or two. If this wine reminds you of the last one you drank, and not the penultimate, drink the rest of the case soon. It’s likely on the downward slope. Don’t wait until you have great salad dressing base hoping instead to have a 20 year old stunner. Wines seldom get better once they move to the downslide. General rule to keep you from pouring wine down the drain: If you're unsure of a wine's aging potential, drink your reds within 5-7 years of the vintage date and enjoy your whites and rosés in the first 1-2 years. 

So how does one choose the wines worthy of cellar time? The Bible mentions aged wines and the Romans extolled their charms, but aging fell out of practice until the 17th century when the glass bottle, a nearly perfect storage device, began to be mass produced. In general, most people only think of aging red wine since they are by nature less susceptible to oxidation during the aging process. Certainly you could establish a cellar with nothing but big red wines, but this single-mindedness defeats  the purpose of having a collection in the first place. White wines have their place on the table and, therefore, in the cellar. Whites pair well with seafood, lighter meats, and the warmer temps. But which whites should be cellared? For how long, and why should they age?

White wines have fewer phenolics than reds; this is the first hardship in aging them. White wines have to make up for this handicap somewhere, and they do so mainly with acid. (While sugar also helps in aging, this post focuses on dry whites.) Clues for whites that age best: high acid levels, perhaps high phenolics (extraction), possible barrel fermentation, a lack of malolactic fermentation and botrytis. In general, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay are the aging white grapes. And, only the best wines, from the best sites, from the best producers are worthy of extended aging. (Side note: Sauvignon Blanc, even with its bracing acidity, seldom stands the test of time; its bright flavors become vegetal or insipid.)

Riesling, again only the best, have aging windows determined by their ripeness level. Here are some guidelines according to Terry Theise, German/Austrian/Champagne guru.

Level                              Peaks @                      Fade begins

Kabinett                         4-6 yrs                           15

Spatlese                         7-10                              25

Auslese                         12-15                             35

Beerenauslese               25                                 50

Trockenbeerenauslese  35-50                             after you’re gone

Chenin Blanc from the greatest vineyards of the Loire, and nowhere else on earth, are age worthy. The grape is naturally high in acidity. In great vintages, the grape is high in sugar. It is a late ripener, which give more time for phenols to develop. Its vignerons eschew malolactic fermentation. The grapes are often touched with botrytis. Look to the AOCs Bonnezeaux, Montlouis, Savennières, Coteaux Layon, and Quarts de Chaume for some of the longest lived. Many have a perceptible touch of sweetness but pair beautifully with rich dishes. These can age for 30+ years.

This leaves Chardonnay, a wine lower in acid than the other two, but what it misses in acid, it makes up for in extraction and phenolics. All Chardonnay though is not equal. Here’s a key to the ageable ones.  Look to get from 6 to ten years out of them. Chablis may last a bit longer. 

• Highest acid possible – found in coldest regions. Chablis, for sure; Côte d’ Or, some; California, a few spots.

• Full ripeness – nothing halfway here, opulence is the goal.

• Barrel fermentation – inert fermentation vessels do not lead ageble wine.

• Oak elevage – the tannins of the oak barrel along with slow controlled oxidation help develop an endurance wine.

Finally there are the outliers, the exceptions of those wines that should not be ageable. Château du Coing de St. Fiacre is a perfect example. Most Muscadets are not thought of as aging wines, but this wine is barrel-fermented, highly acidic, rests on its lees through the winter, and is bottled in late March with a touch of effervescence remaining. The 1999 is singing. For 20-ish dollars you can see just what lies in store for those with the patience to wait.

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