Most white wine doesn't age particularly well, but a trend I have noticed in the past few years is toward the aging of California Chardonnays.
Wine collectors always have put away Chardonnays from such producers as Stony Hill, Chateau Montelena, Mayacamas, Trefethen, Grgich and others on the theory that they require time in the bottle to develop a sensual texture and evanescent fruit quality, combined with a decadence only time can produce.
That older, perfectly mature quality of Chardonnay is rare to find in California, mainly because so few California producers make their wines with the intention of long-term bottle age. With time in the bottle, most California Chardonnay simply gets old. Instead of maturity, these wines go from youthful simplicity to senility without a plateau in between.
Yet the very quality that is so desirable in older Chardonnays is precisely the same sort of quality one looks for, indeed expects, in French white Burgundy. And with the very good Burgundies, notably from excellent producers who understand this characteristic, age truly comes on gracefully.
This recent trend of stashing Chardonnays in the back of cellars to age and become more mellow has opened the eyes of many collectors to the fact that only some California Chardonnays can be treated this way, and that other producers' wines do not benefit much from such treatment.
I have in my cellar the last four bottles from a case of 1977 Trefethen Chardonnay that I have sipped during the years, watching it continually amaze folks with its slowly heightening roasted hazelnut aroma and silky, subtle texture.
I have likewise watched the 1975 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay reach near unctuousness, to a point where I am down to one bottle and glad I have consumed most of it, for the wine has reached a point of no return. It is still gorgeous, but not improving.
And I have dozens of other Chardonnays that have given me varying degrees of taste thrills throughout the years--and an equal number that are shot and undrinkable.
Restaurateurs and many budding wine collectors tell me they don't have much experience with older Chardonnays or white Burgundies, for different reasons. The collectors say they don't have the patience to buy a great Chardonnay and stash it; they get impatient and raid the cellar until the wine is gone long before its prime.
Restaurants rarely have the storage space to age white wines until they gain that bottle fragrance that is so intriguing. Such wines usually are sold off before they begin to acquire aged character.
But for those who have experienced a great older white Burgundy or Chardonnay, the experience is worth waiting for.
However, with the price of white Burgundies skyrocketing these days, any older wines of any quality at all are becoming expensive. And they are a gamble, especially because not every producer makes great wine throughout their line and because storage conditions vary at different wholesalers.
And white Burgundy, perhaps more than any other wine, is very sensitive to storage conditions oxidizing rapidly if the temperature is not cool and constant.
Moreover, old white Burgundy from anyone, good producer or bad, is a rarity in the marketplace. I checked the latest issue of "Patterson's Beverage Journal," which lists the availability of wines to retailers and wholesalers in the Southern California area, and found no white Burgundies older than 1983. And only two 1983s.
It was, therefore, tantalizing the other day to hear that an old friend was distributing the wines of Robert Ampeau, a producer whose Meursault property is highly regarded.
Respected White Wines
For example, Serena Sutcliffe, in her book "The Art of the Winemaker," wrote, "Ampeau . . . has always been known for the astonishing quality of his white wines." And in Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine is the statement about Robert Ampeau & Fils, "An outstanding domain . . . whose white wines are particularly respected."
Ed Masciana said distributing the line would not be difficult (the wines are exceptional, he said) except for the fact that some of the wines are older than current vintages. My ears did an impersonation of a pointer during a quail hunt.
I realized that some restaurant owners might be skeptical about 10-year-old white Burgundies because they may have had some sad experiences with other producers' wines. But Ampeau's wines are being brought in direct from France, from the producer's cellar. They have been stored in Ampeau's cellars until now, meaning aging conditions have been ideal.
"His aging cellar isn't some warehouse in the desert," said Masciana.
I was eager to try the wines because I have known Masciana for a decade and he has this unnerving trait of being at once enthusiastic and usually right. His wildly flailing arms when he spoke of the Ampeau wines encouraged me further.
Still, I was apprehensive when he poured the 1977 Ampeau Meursault Perriers considering that it was 11 years old and from a vintage rated as poor. The wine was amazing for the fruit, oak and roasted nut complexity it offered. I expected it to be expensive because of its age, but found out it retails for $26, a bargain for those who like older white Burgundy.
Also impressive was the 1980 Meursault ($26), which lacked the fruit I look for in older wines, but had a richness and high acidity I found most enjoyable.
Another interesting wine (and Masciana's favorite) was the 1981 Meursault Charmes ($29.50). I noted a slight match-stick aroma at first (Masciana said other bottles are cleaner), but as the wine aired in a glass, that went away to reveal a classic Meursault richness with a nuttiness in the aftertaste that was marvelous.
"The only reason I'm doing this (distributing these wines) is to get the wines cheaper for myself," said Masciana, who these days teaches courses on wine appreciation and is writing a book on wine.
The Ampeau line has about 80 wines and Masciana said he expects prices to rise for almost everything on the list within a few weeks or months. At the current prices, the wines are clearly good values, especially for restaurants that typically don't carry any older white wines. These wines will provide restaurants with that capability.
Included in the Ampeau line are wines from the early 1970s. From the few wines I tasted, it's evident that these present good value at a time of escalating prices for white Burgundies.
Wine of the Week: 1985 Comte de Bailly Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume ($20)--Stunning spice and fruit aroma, silky, rich, complex taste with a broad finish. The price is reasonable considering how pricey most white Burgundies have become. Another attractive wine is 1986 Comte de Bailly Chablis ($11.50), with lean, crisp freshness, delicate spiciness and slight steeliness in the finish. Both are available through Masciana, who is based in Torrance.