As semillon develops noble rot, seen above, the grapes become sweeter, which allows the wine to age longer in a cellar.
I have a confession: I used to be intimidated by the idea of collecting any white wine other than Champagne. Like many collectors out there, I loved a crisp glass of Chardonnay, but my white wines rarely stuck around my cellar longer than a few months–just long enough for me to drink them. I was paranoid about making the wrong long-term investment choice; I didn’t want to invest in a vintage bottle of, say, Chenin Blanc, only to discover 15 years later that the wine wasn’t nearly as delicious as I expected it to be in its maturity.
Many of the collectors I’ve met and worked with over the years have felt the same way, investing primarily in red wines or Champagne and avoiding other whites altogether. Yet I’m here to tell you that collecting age-worthy white wines is easier than it sounds, as long as you have the right tools at your disposal.
Why Do Some Collectors Fear White Wine?
To understand how to collect white wine, you first need to be on the lookout for common problems collectors face with these wines. The first problem is ageability; most white wine styles are meant to be drunk within less than three years, while red wines typically last longer. That’s because most red wines are processed with the grape skin still on, which gives them their deep ruby color and prominent tannins. These tannins are what provide longevity, allowing the wine to last 20 or more years in a cellar. Whites have much less tannin because they don’t come into as much contact with the skin as they’re being processed. Winemakers can add tannins to white wines through barrel aging, but most of these wines still don’t last as long as their red peers. For instance, red Bordeaux can easily last more than 20 years, yet white Bordeaux typically is best enjoyed within a five to ten year span.
There’s also a prevailing myth that white wines are less bold and interesting than red wines. This simply isn’t true. While big, jammy California Cabs get all of the attention, you can easily find hearty white wines that drink like reds and are every bit as bold. Oaky Chardonnay, Rhone Viognier, and mineral-heavy German Riesling all fit this description.
Choose Age-Worthy White Wines
To determine age-worthiness, first look at the wine’s style and the region in which it was grown. The styles that typically age the longest are ultra-sweet whites from Sauternes and a handful of dry Riesling vintages from regions like Alsace and Germany. Here are the white wines collectors tend to successfully age in a cellar longer than 20 years:
- Top-tier Chablis
- Sauternes with plenty of noble rot
- High-quality Semillon
- Late harvest wines that have botrytized
- Beerenauslese Riesling from Germany
- Jura Savagnin
- Quality Malvasia
- Ice wines (made from grapes that have literally frozen on the vine)
However, just because a wine isn’t on this list doesn’t mean it will necessarily spoil early. Sweet wines that have aging potential should be fully ripened (if not practically raisined) on the vine, and preferably plucked late in the harvest season. Sweet vintages should also have experienced plenty of sunshine throughout the summer, with minor bouts of rainy or chilly weather to increase the acidity slightly. Wines on the sweet side often become drier and more complex in flavor as they age, so it’s not a bad idea to invest in an ultra-sweet wine that tastes slightly too sweet in its youth. By the time it reaches peak maturity, it likely will lose some of its fruitier notes, becoming richer and even nutty in flavor.
As for dry styles, you’ll have to be a bit more picky. The higher the alcohol content, the drier the wine will be, yet if you pick a wine with an alcohol content that’s too high (above about 13 percent, depending on the varietal), the wine will turn into vinegar within a few years. I recommend investing in dry wines that retain their crispness and acidity, but also have a naturally lower alcohol content. Many dry Rieslings and Semillons can taste dry overall without being especially high in alcohol. You’ll find these wines in cooler climates which promote acidity.
Ignore Diversity…At First
Having a diverse cellar can keep your collection interesting, but when you’re first getting started collecting white wines other than Champagne, I recommend only buying the basics for a year or two. Chances are, your first white wine purchases will come from the same famous producers and high-quality vintages that most other collectors already have in their cellars. There is nothing wrong with this! Storing white wine longterm is more complicated than storing red wine, and it’s important to practice on a few bottles before you start experimenting with unusual varietals or vintages. It allows you to build your confidence, and learn which styles of white wine you truly enjoy in their old age. Mature white wines are an acquired taste; the tawny color and lack of fruitiness can throw some wine lovers off. Buy a few aged white wines to prepare your palate, and to help you make an informed choice about which styles to age yourself. Once you’ve successfully stored these wines for a few years, and find that you enjoy the taste, you’ll be ready to diversify your cellar.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.