When you think of cellaring wine and keeping it for years to age, your mind probably goes straight to red wine. But what about other wines—can you age white wine?
Not all wine is made to age. Did you know that 80% of wine is opened within 60 minutes of purchase? And that wine-makers craft the majority of their yield exactly for that purpose?
And that makes sense.
Bright young wines, full of fruit and crisp acidity, are what we expect when we open a bottle of white.
So I don’t think I’m alone in thinking the whole wine ageing process, laying down bottles and cellaring them for years—sometimes decades—was specifically and exclusively for reds.
15-year-old Shiraz, even older Cabernets and things like Tempranillo and Nebbiolo even older than that.
Tannins soften, oakiness develops and savoury flavours deepen into a rich, regal elegance you can’t mimic or synthesise in young wines.
But can you age white wine?
The short answer is: yes, you can.
The medium answer is: still yes, but only some varieties of white wine—mostly Semillon, Riesling and Chardonnay.
The long answer is yes, but these certain wine varieties need to have certain qualities. Good acidity, plenty of structure and texture, and an over-all balance.
It’s often only high-quality wine that ages well. These are ones that the wine-maker has created with ageing in mind rather than cracking the bottle as soon as your back from the bottle-o.
If you’re not sure, the label usually has some tips on ageing. And if you’re at a winery, it’s worth asking the cellar door staff if a particular wine will age well or if it’s drinking better now.
But what happens when you age white wines? And how long should you age them?
Semillon is the longest lasting, which you can cellar in its bottle for up to a massive 40 years.
And the results can be startling.
Rich oaky notes come through that weren’t there before in wine that’s never seen the inside of a wooden barrel. This starts to happen after about eight years, but after 12, the rate of development becomes harder to notice.
Riesling develops a smooth, earthy flavour and turns a richer golden colour. Acidity tends to drop off but in its place are all kinds of complex flavours.
Often a Riesling that has those punchy lime and lemon notes when it’s young will still have them after ageing; they’ll just be more subtle. The mineral quality people associate with Riesling will improve too.
Riesling can cellar for up to 15 years, but anything over eight is ideal.
You can read our story on a vertical tasting of aged Rieslings here.
Chardonnay develops the quickest in the cellar—no more than 10 years seems to be the guideline.
After five, you’ll notice a difference.
Caramel notes and nuttiness will develop, and the length of the finish will extend too. Oaked Chardonnays will soften and the butteriness from diacetyl will relax too.
But like most things wine, it’s never as simple as that.
If you want more detailed answers on when to open cellared wine, this Wine Companion Q&A with Australian winemakers on aged wines is a fascinating read.
What about sparkling wine?
We were in the Hunter Valley recently, home to some of Australia’s best Chardonnays and Semillons.
We were having a tasting at sparkling wine specialists Petersons Wines in their beautifully intimate Broke Road cellar door when we were introduced to aged sparkling Semillon.
It was nothing short of a wine revelation.
This wine is from the 2007 vintage and has everything that an aged Semillon promises… plus bubbles!
Most non-vintage bubbly isn’t made for cellaring though and is best popping asap.