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The Long Game of Aged White Wines

“Aging like a fine wine” is an idiom often used to compliment someone as they embrace their maturity. When a wine’s assumed to have reached its prime, it can embody characteristics like luscious, rich, rustic, or gentle. Additionally, tannins and acidity are two structural traits that can help bring out the best in a vintage.

But in the literal sense, what does it take for a wine to reach its “ideal” deliciousness? How do we determine when a wine’s spent enough time in the cellar for it to be fully enjoyed? 

To begin, it should be acknowledged that pretty much all wine—no matter the grape variety—is encouraged to be enjoyed in its youth. Big, bold red wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Bordeaux blends) are generally thought to be exceptions to the rule, but contrary to conventional wisdom, there are also several white grape varieties that have the ability and structure to last decades.

A conversation about age-worthy whites can’t begin without mentioning the French winemaking region of Burgundy, known for its exquisite Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Wines of Bourgogne express themselves so brilliantly thanks to the area’s cool climate, rich terroir, and thoughtful winemaking techniques. As the region’s predominant white grape, Chardonnay is used to make everything from crisp and simple Bourgogne Blanc to the dynamic, highly concentrated wines from places like Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Mâconnais. Burgundy’s also famous for its winemaking techniques, many of which North American winemakers have adapted to make wines of various styles. In The Wine Bible, author Karen MacNeil cites barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, long lees contact, fining with casein or isinglass and extended barrel aging as just a few of the Burgundian methods that help in developing premium Chardonnay.

French oak barrels at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards.

In California, Sonoma-Cutrer has combined those Burgundian practices with their own approaches to make wines that show appreciation of the terroir throughout Sonoma County. Chardonnay can thrive all over the world, and expresses itself stylistically as sweet, dry, still, or sparkling—making it one of the most versatile white grapes. The winery, which celebrated 40 years of making Chardonnay last July, has six vineyards in different areas with different soil types, which allows for a range of flavors and ripening patterns. Cara Morrison, who serves as Sonoma-Cutrer’s Chardonnay winemaker, attributes the cool weather and soil to the successful age-worthiness of its wine. And because Chardonnay needs time to ripen, the moderate weather in the Russian River Valley helps the grape develop key flavors and retain acidity. “During the summer, thick fog comes in from the Pacific Ocean to keep the valley cool, then the sun slowly burns off the fog in the late morning or early afternoon,” she says. “As for the terroir, our Les Pierres vineyard is very rocky, which gives a more mineral flavor, while The Cutrer vineyard around the winery has heavier soils that give the Chardonnay more mouthfeel and texture. This variety helps give a complex mix of aromas and flavors.”

Throughout the late 1980s and ’90s, California Chardonnays were often referred to as “butter bombs,” meaning they embodied an oily, buttery mouthfeel that led many consumers to believe this was the only type of wine the grape variety could produce. But contrary to this assumption, malolactic fermentation (MLF) and heavy oak aging were responsible for many of those secondary and tertiary aromas and flavor profiles like butter, cream, vanilla, toast, and charred wood. Back then, if sugar content in the harvested grapes was too high (due to heat), MLF and new oak were used to create balance. The decision to exercise these techniques to create a more textured Chardonnay is ultimately up to the winemaker, but it runs the risk of decreasing acidity and interfering with the wine’s complexity. 

To commemorate Sonoma-Cutrer’s 40-year milestone, but not flash too far back into the past, Morrison and her team wanted to create a Chardonnay that would ultimately serve as the brand’s “greatest hits.” Like winemakers in Burgundy, she and her team harvested grapes from tight-spaced blocks in their best vineyards: Les Pierres, The Cutrer, and Vine Hill Road. This blend of vineyard terroirs brought in mineral elements from Les Pierres along with the richer mouthfeel and textures found in The Cutrer blocks.

Riesling grapes at Brooks Wine vineyard in Oregon. | Photo by Andrea Johnson

And just as terroir of the vines impacts the grapes’ flavor and aroma, so does the terroir of the wood: Attributes, including location, of the forest where the oak was grown, can influence the barrel’s characteristics, such as the tightness of the grain or how it expresses oak aromas. “The lighter, mineral, lemon-lime, and low acidity characteristics of the Les Pierres need a barrel that provides structure and minimal influence on the aroma, so we use all one-year-old French Allier Forest oak, or other tighter-grain oak forests for that wine,” Morrison says. “As for the more robust, bigger mouthfeel wines from the Cutrer Vineyard, we use barrels with slightly wider-grain oak, such as from the Vosges Forest in France. The wider grain imparts more caramel and nutmeg-type aromas, and complements the fuller-bodied Cutrer Chardonnay.” 

Morrison adds that Sonoma-Cutrer annually selects oak from several different forests and works with three coopers—each employing various toasting methods—which results in a range of barrel options to choose from to give their Chardonnays complexity and style.

When it comes to aging a full-bodied white wine like Chardonnay, it’s an intentional practice of patience for the winemaker to achieve the precise flavor profile they desire. Sonoma-Cutrer has a dedicated barrel room for all Chardonnay—within a 20,000-square-foot facility dug into a hillside and designed to replicate a French cave—where the temperature is around 55 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit for barrel fermentation. Red-wine barrel rooms are kept at a similar temperature, mostly to gently age the wines with minimal evaporation. “We have multiple barrels rooms and can adjust the temperature depending on how fast or slow the fermentations are going in each room,” Morrison says. Chardonnay goes into the barrels as juice and ferments, which allows for the wine and oak to integrate simultaneously. 

After fermentation, exhausted yeast cells (the “lees”) settle at the bottom of the Chardonnay barrels. Morrison and her team stir the lees six to eight times over the seven-to-nine-month barrel-aging period, adding another layer of richness and texture to the wine. Additionally, they taste all the individual lots of wines every month while aging in order to track their progress. After nine months of aging, the wine is racked off, bottled, and then ages for an additional one to three months before release. Depending on the vintage, it’s ready to drink once it’s out on the market, but some bottles can also benefit from a few more months of bottle aging.

While Burgundian Chardonnay is typically the best-known age-worthy white wine, other aromatic white wines like Riesling and Chenin Blanc also can produce various styles of wines that can age for decades. Unlike Chardonnay, Riesling isn’t fermented or aged in oak, but rather stainless steel, in order to retain its high level of acidity and fruit flavor. 

“A combination of sugar and acid, or acid and complexity in flavors, gives you the blueprint for an age-worthy white wine.”—Jordan Lynn Traylor

Jordan Lynn Traylor, an Atlanta-based chef, sommelier, and wine consultant, says that aging white wines has typically gotten a bad rap among everyday consumers, mostly because they have aged the wrong grape variety or held on to a bottle that’s not age-worthy. “There’s nothing worse than opening a bottle you’ve been holding on to for a while, popping the cork, giving it a taste, and realizing it is way past its prime,” Traylor says. “It’s best to have a white wine that already has interesting things going on in the bottle from inception, and the potential to actually turn into better things later if you don’t want a disaster. You can’t age white wine that has no acid. A combination of sugar and acid, or acid and complexity in flavors, gives you the blueprint for an age-worthy white wine.

The level of acidity plays a major role in the longevity of white wine, especially once it’s left its fermentation vessel—oak or stainless steel—and finds its way into a bottle. Whether the bottle is sealed with a cork or screw cap, the goal is to protect the wine from exposure to oxygen. While this is bound to happen over time, the less oxygen that can get into the bottle of wine, the longer that primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas and flavors can be preserved as they’re intended to be. For wines with cork closures, storing the bottles on their sides and in a cool, dry place helps the cork to keep contact with the wine and limit air getting into the bottle.

Jordan Lynn Traylor, an Atlanta-based chef, sommelier, and wine consultant. | Photo by Jonathan Cooper

For a private client’s dinner party once, Traylor opened and served a 1989 Clos Sainte Hune Riesling from Alsace, France, and was pleasantly surprised by how crisp and refreshing the wine tasted after so many years. “To prepare it, I brought up the temperature a bit by pulling it from the fridge about an hour before,” then pouring it into a small decanter, Traylor says. “When I had a taste, it had the creamiest, most velvety mouthfeel with the perfect amount of acidity to keep each sip very fresh. It was truly nothing short of liquid nectar.”

As Germany’s top grape variety, Riesling can express itself on a wide spectrum of bone-dry to dessert-sweet, as well as in the styles of still and sparkling. Because of the grape’s ability to withstand very cold winters and to hang out on the vine long enough to accumulate sugar without losing acidity, the very best Rieslings can mature in the bottle for decades and formulate rich flavors of honey, dried apricot, dried peach, and toast. 

With Willamette Valley terroir at its fingertips, Brooks Wine in Amity, Oregon, has created an outstanding range of award-winning Rieslings for more than 20 years. Because of the cool Pacific Ocean breezes, Brooks can create wines that become more complex as they age, but can still retain lively characteristics of a younger wine. “We do some early picks to hold as much acidity as possible, but other picks are made based on taste,” says head winemaker Chris Williams. “It’s very important to understand that although different temperatures will create different wines, none of that matters if you have a lack of flavor.” Brooks Wine Riesling is fermented and aged in stainless steel, and bottled six months after harvest. 

In the cellar, Williams and associate winemaker and grower liaison Claire Jarreau taste through and find the flavor profiles that work best with the amount of sweetness (or lack thereof) that they wish to leave for a particular vintage. Brooks Wine is also Demeter-certified Biodynamic and a Certified B Corp vineyard, which means they prioritize natural approaches and refrain from using any chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or fungicides. Within their portfolio, they have two biodynamic Rieslings that express flavors of tropical and citrus fruits, with balanced acidity and minerality. “I would never want to imply that by not farming biodynamically, one’s wines aren’t as good,” says Williams. “The important focus for us at Brooks is matching our environmental values with those of our social self. We know we can make these great wines with a very low environmental impact simply by keeping our eyes on the vines and acting on things with a holistic approach, so we do!”

Riesling harvest at Brooks Wine vineyard. | Photo by Andrea Johnson

At Brooks Wine, like many wineries, every vineyard, vintage, and bottling experience is different. Williams and Jarreau taste through the white wine cellar twice a week to assess how it’s tracking and determine when they would like to bottle. Bottling dates are preset up to a year in advance, so there’s limited flexibility. “Aging in-bottle is a slower process, however, it typically allows for less control,” says Jarreau. “[The wine] will typically see less oxygen ingress in bottle than in the cellar, however, we have limited control over how each customer chooses to age the wines once they are in their possession. We have to anticipate all of the possibilities.” 

The Brooks Wine white-wine cellar is kept cooler than their red-wine cellar after harvest because the wines are cooling down at the end of fermentation. “In the red-wine cellar, we are doing the reverse—heating the space to keep it warm enough to allow for malolactic fermentation to go through naturally,” says Jarreau. “This is not something we strive for with Riesling.”

Brooks also produced a 2018 Gewürztraminer (only 50 cases made) that’s exclusive to its wine club members. “The Gewürztraminer’s spicy, stone fruit flavor profiles age wonderfully, and when made in a dessert style, the acidity has a chance to shine through even more,” Williams says. “Over a long period of time, the residual sugar gels with those fruit flavors, and with a little exposure to oxygen, it makes for a beautiful tasting experience.” 

When it comes to aging Riesling, or any white wine, Williams and Jarreau agree that consistent temperature and minimal exposure to sunlight are what help to keep a wine for a long period of time. Because of its naturally high level of acidity and tendency to carry residual sugar, Riesling is a white-wine style suitable for longevity. “Aging wines is a personal preference, and not necessarily for everyone,” says Williams. “It involves some intent, and a willingness to be patient, even when you’re not quite sure what you’re waiting for.

“But like time, wine waits for no one—so rather than hold on to a bottle for too long, pull it out of the cellar and enjoy it while you can.”—Tonya Pitts

Tonya Pitts, who serves as sommelier and wine director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco and runs a consulting company, believes that there are several age-worthy white grape varieties that many consumers have had the chance to explore—but the most accessible aged white wine is typically white Burgundy. “There is higher cost associated with mature wines,” says Pitts. “[White Burgundy is] found in certain restaurants. Usually, higher-end restaurants or in someone’s cellar as a collector.” Pitts also shares that Savagnin from the Jura (France), the Spanish white Rioja, and Aligoté from Burgundy are all age-worthy white wines that aren’t always the most promoted, but they are very enjoyable. With age does come change, so Pitts advises wine lovers not to be surprised if the wine isn’t showing immediately. “Sometimes, certain wines can be forgotten about or lost in the cellar, which can make for a happy or sad moment once the bottle is opened tableside,” she says. “If you do choose to decant, give it a little time to breathe, like you would with an older red wine. But like time, wine waits for no one—so rather than hold on to a bottle for too long, pull it out of the cellar and enjoy it while you can.” 

While patience is certainly a virtue (and a risk) that comes with enjoying aged white wines, the reward is well worth the wait. “The acidity and residual sugar in an aged Riesling or an aged Chenin Blanc, as well as the myriad of flavors and aromas native to both of these grapes, provide the perfect ambiance for laying these bottles down for a few years,” says Traylor. “When at their best, the identifiable flavors integrate well with the body, alcohol, and acid, and provide a mouth-watering and refreshing yet balanced taste.”

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