According to conventional wisdom, red wines improve if you age them for a few years but white wines do not.
This is only partially true, or rather it’s only true in one respect: red wines remain relatively unchanged as you age them, so they gradually become softer, smoother, richer versions of themselves. White wines, on the other hand, undergo complete transformations as they age in the bottle. Even five years can render a white wine completely unrecognisable compared to what it was like when it was fresh.
The reason for this is that red wine contains a lot more tannin than white wine does, and this acts as a preservative, so that the character of red wine changes very slowly. White wine is free to go through the ageing process much more rapidly.
Depending on the cultivar and quality of the white wine, it begins to change after three to five years in the bottle. The colour begins to deepen to yellow and secondary characteristics emerge in the taste of the wine. Secondary characteristics are elements in the flavour of wine that do not taste like the grapes it was made of. Often there’s a nutty taste, and sometimes spicy or citrus flavours emerge. Over a couple of years, these dominate the wine’s primary fruity flavours.
This is the stage where some people decide the wine is past its prime and is going off. If you firmly believe that white wine must be a fresh, crisp, fruity thing, then you probably agree with them. Personally, I feel that would be like saying camembert has to be dry and chalky inside. Like camembert, white wine goes through radical changes as it matures, and it’s just as enjoyable in its maturity as it is in its youth.
After between seven and ten years, if the wine was good to begin with, its flavours become even more complex. Notes of honey and dried fruit begin to emerge and the nuttiness and spiciness become deeper and fuller. By this stage, the colour tends towards deep amber and the wine may begin to resemble a Noble Late Harvest without the sweetness.
Needless to say, not all white wines respond so favourably to ageing. Of the South African varietals, Chenin Blanc has the greatest ageing potential ‚ it does wonderful things after ten years in the bottle. Chardonnay, Riesling and Gew√ºrztraminer also age very well. S√©millon and Sauvignon Blanc are less suited to ageing ‚ I would not recommend keeping Sauvignon Blanc longer than four years.
The initial quality of the wine is an even more decisive factor than the varietal. As with red wine, bad wine ages badly. However, a well-made, well-balanced white will age almost as well as a red, and keeping suitable white wines for up to ten or twelve years can yield great rewards.
I am a wine lover and a writer, and this blog is my way of combining the two. As far as writing goes, I have been doing it since I learned how, and I’m currently freelancing as a journalist, editor and technical writer. I write a monthly column for winemag.co.za. My wine knowledge comes from tasting wines more or less non-stop for 20 years, as well as studying at the Cape Wine Academy, where I’m currently studying for a diploma. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, in a flat at the foot of Lion’s Head, surrounded by books and wine.