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.

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