Buying White Wine
By Alexis Beltrami
The overwhelming majority of white wines on the market are meant to
be drunk when they are released. With certain exceptions, including
expensive white Burgundies, good Alsatian whites and good German Rieslings,
white wines do not improve with age. In fact, most deteriorate rapidly.
California Chardonnays are particularly notorious in this regard.
Because of the overripe, low-acid, heavily oaked style in which they
typically are made, most California Chardonnays are unpleasant relics
by their third or fourth birthday--the ripe fruit flavors are gone,
leaving only bitter woodiness and alcohol. In the past six months, I've
had the disappointment of tasting several highly-rated California Chardonnays
from 1996 and 1997 that were lifeless. Of course, storage problems don't
help. Chardonnay is unusually vulnerable to the harmful effects of light
and warmth--the conditions it faces in most wine shops. Have you ever
walked into a wine shop and felt a chill, as in the supermarket? Probably
not, but you should. Chardonnays that have spent six months languishing
on a retailer's hot shelves, with the sun slanting in through the windows,
are fighting a losing battle.
Other white varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer
and Pinot Grigio, are usually enjoyed for their fresh, bright, fruity
and floral aromas, which typically fade within a year or two of release.
Last summer I purchased a case of 1998 Sauvignon Blanc from St. Supéry
in the Napa Valley, when it was a stunningly fragrant, intense and complex
wine. But each time I opened another bottle, over the course of the
fall and winter, I found it had dropped off another notch; bit by bit,
the aromas became duller and weaker, until the wine, although still
good, was a mere memory of its former glory.
As we head into summer, my recommendation--unless you really trust
your wine merchant to sell only the freshest wines--is to buy Sauvignon
Blancs from the 1999 vintage, and Chardonnays from 1998. There is one
catch, however: neither 1998 nor, apparently, 1999, were great vintages
for California whites, so you will need some good advice (from your
retailer or wine publications) to choose the best bottles. One California
Chardonnay that I've recently enjoyed is the 1998 Landmark Overlook.
For pure fun, Cline's Côtes d'Oakley Blanc 1998, a juicy white blend
at under $10, can't be beat. California's weak vintages also provide
the perfect opportunity to discover New Zealand's great 1999 Sauvignon
Blancs, the 1997 and 1998 German Rieslings, and the excellent whites
currently available from northeast Italy's Friuli and Alto Adige regions.