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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I often see in the backs of my Wine Spectators thoughtful comments to the effect of "may reward cellaring" or "best after." Now, I understand that red wine can often benefit from cellaring, because of all those nasty tannins. But what about a white wine improves from cellaring? I'm at a loss.
—David K., Kennebunkport, Maine
Aw, don't call tannins "nasty." What did they ever do to you? Tannins are very useful. As you point out, they give red wines the stuffing to age.
White wines do lack tannins, but there are other elements to seek in ageworthy wines. Most of all, look for balance, especially between fruit and acidity. Remember that a wine cellar is not a wine hospital; a wine that's flabby in its youth isn't likely to become balanced with age. I sometimes hear people predicting that the oak in an overly oaky wine will "integrate" over time, but I can't say I've see that happen.
Just like most reds, most white wines are made to enjoy while they are young and fresh. Noteworthy exceptions include top-notch Chardonnays (especially white Burgundies, in my opinion), fine Rieslings from Germany, dessert wines like Sauternes and my favorite, vintage Champagne. Many of these whites can age for a decade, and the best (especially Sauternes) can go for 20 years or even longer.
But even more than with red wines, good cellar conditions are critical. The line between complex richness and oxidation is a fine one, and whites kept under bad (especially warm or fluctuating) conditions will rarely last.
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