Is All Wine Better With Age? These White Wine Producers Think So
When master sommelier Michael Meagher went to Rías Baixas, a region on the southwestern coast of Spain near Portugal, he expected to drink plenty of Albariño. It’s the name of both a grape variety and a local white wine that’s typically consumed within a year of harvest. Its bracing acidity, light body, and fresh fruit flavors perfectly complement the area’s daily catch, seafood tapas, and cheese.
What was unusual was that he was served a 15-year-old Albariño.
“It was still bright, young and complex, and you could see the hallmarks of what Albariño was in this wine,” Meagher says. “But you also had echoes of aged Riesling and aged Chardonnay, because that’s what we think of for aged white wine. There’s been a lot of experimentation by [Rías Baixas] winemakers to give Albariño the treatment of a quality Chardonnay from Burgundy, and it’s been incredibly successful.”
Most Albariño wine you’ll encounter is light and fresh. It is often served as an aperitif, alongside appetizers of raw fish such as ceviche, or sipped on a warm day in the sun. It’s not traditionally cellared, as it’s generally drunk within a year or two of bottling. It’s produced in nearby Portugal as well, where it goes by the name of Alvarinho. There, it’s often blended into Vinho Verde, meaning “green wine”—a term in reference to its youthful character.
While most of the wine is consumed quickly, more and more producers are experimenting with the potential of aging the variety. They are looking at ways to enhance efficiency in the vineyards but, most interestingly, using alternative methods during production and putting the bottles away for years to see what happens. At first, one may think they are just hopping on the bandwagon that believes older wine is better, but the grape has some critical characteristics that align well with aging.
Meagher explains that there are characteristics of a wine that signal to a producer that it can be aged. Like popular aged varieties Riesling, Chardonnay, and Semillon, Albariño demonstrates a high level of natural acidity. That’s enhanced by the cool climate where it is grown along the Iberian coast. Acidity acts like a natural preservative to protect the wine from bacterial growth. “Cool climates inhibit maturity of the seeds,” he adds. “Grapes are ripe but not as ripe as someplace like California or Argentina.”
The grape also stands up to lees aging, a process by which wine is kept in contact with the dead yeast particles. This adds complexity to the wine, but aging on lees also helps protect the wine from oxidation, another factor contributing to its ability to age. Lees scavenge for free oxygen in the barrel, prohibiting it from binding with sulfur—a preservative—and maintaining the sulfur levels in the vessel. Some producers, like Granbazán, age on the lees for a few months; others, like Paco y Lola, keep the wine on the lees for more than a year.
Rías Baixas’s Albariño producers aren’t the only ones playing around with aging white wines. In Rioja, another area of Spain, winemaker Maria Jose López de Heredia ages her three white wines from six to 10 years. As the great-granddaughter of the founder of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, she is continuing that tradition they have always done: make white wines like their reds. For López de Heredia, it’s the durability of the Viura and Malvasia grapes that allow her to age the wine. “It is generally believed that white wines, unlike reds, will not stand the test of time,” she says. “However, the way we make our wines has not changed since the 19th century. The grapes have a concentration of aroma and color, which, when turned into wine, gives it a complexity that continues to develop for many years.”
López de Heredia explained that both Viura and Malvasia exhibit the necessary preservatives for aging wines: the right levels of acid, alcohol, and tannins. She also credits their natural winemaking techniques as critical to the longevity of their wines. It’s not unusual to walk into a wine store and see an older vintage of López de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza, Viña Tondonia Reserva, or Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva on the shelf. In fact, the current releases are 2010, 2006, and 1996, respectively.
Similarly, France’s Languedoc region has long been known for its sleeper value wines, some standout bottles at a fraction of the cost, thanks to it being less recognizable than regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy. While the area has found success with red wines, the smaller production of white wine is where winemaker Vianney Fabre found the most experimentation. As owner of Château d’Anglès in the AOC La Clape, he grows the white Bourboulenc grape and believes it helps age his wines for 15-plus years. The “structuring grape,” as he calls it, makes up at least 40 percent of the blend of his white wines, along with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Vermentino.
He first noticed the potential when aging the Bourboulenc in barrels for the Grand Vin White. He credits the grape’s tannic structure as key to its ability to age. “The Bourboulenc was so beautiful when in barrels, we thought time aging would not be a problem,” Fabre says. He started cellaring bottles in 2002. “Bourboulenc is a tannic grape,” he adds. “Tannins are antioxidants. Aging is about gentle oxidation, so Bouboulenc has a fantastic aging potential.”
Meagher explained that it’s all reflective of the maturity of the wine industry as a whole. The idea of aging wines in general is a rather new concept in the history of wine consumption. It was not until the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s that “connoisseur culture” blossomed and private collectors began stockpiling Bordeaux and Burgundy, creating a scarcity on the market. Prices soared, and producers could pour money into experimentation in the cellar and hold bottles to age for years before releasing to the market.
Now “secondary” regions—regions once overshadowed by household names like Napa Valley, Burgundy, and Tuscany—have become more mainstream, Rías Baixas included, and that allows them to use resources in similar ways. “Poor regions like Rías Baixas and Vinho Verde didn’t have the money to sit on the wines for years, so they made them to be drunk young,” Meagher says. Quick sales were key to staying afloat. But now they have the buffer, financially, to experiment in the cellar.
Aging does command a premium price too. When a winemaker holds onto wine in his or her cellar, that overhead cost is passed along to the end consumer. For example, Paco y Lola’s 2012 vintage Albariño retails for almost double its 2018 counterpart.
But for the most part, producers are just trying to cover their costs. López de Heredia explained that they add in the cost of aging to their white Rioja, but nothing more. “For us, it’s a way of making wine, not a marketing decision,” she says, adding that she does think the market is looking for unique and rare wines. For Rioja, they don’t have to invent something: “We have the history, and there are producers that are willing to recuperate it.”
For producers in Rías Baixas, 15-year-old Albariño isn’t remotely close to the norm; you’ll more commonly encounter a young vintage and certainly have to seek to find older Albariño. But producers are continuing to push the limits of the region. “Producers are investing in their cellars and in winemaking techniques that are more expensive,” Meagher says. “The resources are being allocated to ‘Can these wines live up to a more accepted global standard of age-worthiness?’ and the answer is yes.”
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