Better late than early: On aged white wines

The Mondavi To Kalon I Block Vineyard

For many years I believed, like so many other wine drinkers, that red wines were better when aged and white wines were best consumed very young. Certainly, while it is often true, it turns out that it is not always the case. Obviously there are many red wines which are actually better when young. (There is more to red wine than just Cabernet, after all.) But the real secret is that many white wines (although certainly not all) handle aging very well and are actually even better after spending a few years in a dark cellar.

Recently four of us were in Las Vegas at the Old Homestead steakhouse at Caesar’s Palace (highly recommended), and I was perusing the wine list for a nice bottle of Chardonnay to enjoy with our starters. The wine list (and they have a good one) included a bottle of 2006 Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres Vineyards Chardonnay for $110. Surprised to see a 6-year-old Chard on the menu, I ordered it. The “sommelier” returned with a bottle for my inspection, but it was a 2010 vintage. When I refused based on the year, I said for $110 I wanted the ’06. He insisted there was no such wine on their list. Challenged, I asked for the list to be brought back, and I showed it to him. He said something like “Well, that is clearly a mistake, as we would never serve an older white wine like that.” With all his credibility now completely gone, I ordered a 2009 Montelena and ignored the idiot for the rest of the evening. (Fortunately we had brought a bottle of Anomaly Cabernet to share with our friends, which we were able to do because the restaurant did not carry that particular label.)

But the point was, and is, that many well-made white wines are perfectly capable of aging, and the extra years in the bottle can really give them a smooth mouth feel. The fruit taste can still be found, but the acids can be mellowed out, allowing a silky feel on the palate. (Imagine the feel of Rombauer, without all the butter and oak.)

This lesson about the beauty of aged white wines was highlighted two weeks ago when we attended the black-tie To Kalon Release party at Robert Mondavi Winery. While the flagship red wine was the unabashed star of the evening, the menu featured two amazing examples of aged white wines. During the salad course (Roasted Beet Salad, Goat Cheese Fondue, Baby Greens, Toasted Pistachio) we tasted both the 2003 and 2009 Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard I Block Fume Blanc. (Fume Blanc is basically Sauvignon Blanc which is fermented dry, as opposed to leaving some residual sugar.) While both wines were excellent, the older vintage was preferred by everyone at our table. It still possessed the citrus and honeysuckle flavors, but was not as crisp and acidic as the newer vintage.

The next course (Seared Black Cod, Purple Cauliflower Puree, Butternut Squash and Romanesco, and Coconut Curry Froth) was paired with a 1999 Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay Reserve, from a 5-liter bottle. (It was also paired with the wonderful 2010 Mondavi Napa Valley Pinot Noir Reserve from Carneros). The ’99 Chardonnay was magnificent, so velvety and light on the tongue, with all kinds of nuanced fruit flavors all melded together. It is important to remember that wines age more slowly in large bottles, and this was a very large bottle, so that undoubtedly had an effect on how good this wine tasted. But it clearly drove home the point that well-made white wines can withstand some aging and actually taste better than they do during their normal “prime” drinking years.

While there is still a ton I don’t know about white wines, regardless of their age, I just wanted to highlight this oft-overlooked fact about older white wines. Go take a look in your cellar and see if you have an old bottle of Chardonnay in there. If it’s been properly stored, chances are good it can be even more delicious than you realize. Cheers!

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4 Responses to Better late than early: On aged white wines

  1. Dave Yewell says:

    That somm (probably should not use that word for him) was clueless. What is hard to find is California white wines which age. Typically we let our fruit stay on the vine too long, the acids go down, and low acid wines just don’t age. If you do want to try a GREAT California Chardonnay, made right here in Napa valley, go to HdV on Trancas. Stephane makes great Chardonnay.

    • kortvb says:

      Thanks Dave. Agree about referring to the waiter as “sommelier,” which is why I put it in quotes and lower-case. You will be happy to know that I recently visited HdV and LOVED their wines, especially the De La Guerra Chardonnay, which I bought a bunch of and I already need to restock! Thanks for your comment.

  2. Jocelyn Hoar says:

    Thank you for the amazing account and kind works regarding the To Kalon Dinner and wines chosen to pair with the meal. It was a special evening and a pleasure to meet you!
    Sincerely,
    Jocelyn

  3. Peter Marks says:

    Kort – Glad you had the opportunity to taste 2003 I Block Fume. It’s definitely one of the best white wines in CA and not just because I’m prejudiced. Also, there are some other older whites in my cellar that I look forward to sharing with you soon.

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