A wine that goes against the rule

VINTAGE POINT

Dry white from Alsace shows how gloriously well it can age

VintagePoint

March 03, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

In wine, as well as in life, the exceptions are a lot more interesting than the rules.

One of the most reliable rules about wine is that if it's white and dry, it won't age well.

Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time that's good, solid information for anyone interested in starting a wine collection.

Then you run into a wine that turns the rule on its head, swings you around in the air and makes you love it.

Such a wine, in my case, was the 1991 Zind-Humbrecht Rangen de Thann "Clos St. Urbain" Riesling from Alsace. It's a mouthful to say but more than a mouthful to drink.

Tasted in January at the ripe old (for a dry white wine) age of 12 1/2 years, this classic riesling had matured to a state of near-perfection. Though it had suffered many an indignity in its storage and transport over the past decade, it was not even close to cracking up.

The wine was a deeper golden color than in its youth, but there was not a hint of oxidation. Instead, the mineral flavors of the wine had achieved a crystalline purity and mind-boggling intensity. A cold-slate flavor intermixed with nuances of lemon, orange, nuts and honey (sans sweetness).

Why is it that this wine would be glorious in its 13th year when most dry whites fade after three or four? There are many reasons.

Zind-Humbrecht, with its devotion to low yields and full ripeness of its grapes, has a strong claim on being the finest white-wine producer in the world.

Rangen de Thann is at the very top of the Alsace vineyard hierarchy, producing grapes of extraordinary concentration and character.

Riesling is perhaps the must durable white-wine grape in the world when grown in a world-class vineyard. (Little credit, in this case, can go to the vintage. It was an appalling year for just about everyone in Alsace except Zind-Humbrecht.)

The wine wasn't inexpensive when it was first acquired about a decade ago - probably around $45. To replace it with a current vintage would likely cost $90 or more.

While Zind-Humbrecht riesling is a rare luxury, it isn't the only dry white wine you can cellar with confidence for a decade or more.

Alsace pinot gris and gewurztraminer can endure when they come from the best producers and vineyards. German riesling from the finest vineyards can age magnificently.

The white wines of Hermitage, in France's Rhone Valley, are justly famous for their longevity. The top white Bordeaux from Pessac-Leognan can age gracefully for a decade or two when the vintage conditions are right.

In a top vintage, the best producers of white Burgundy can produce wines that will gain depth and complexity for more than a decade.

John Chadwick, a wine salesman at Mills Liquors in Annapolis, steered me to one white Burgundy in mere double-figures that I would put away for 2012 or later.

The 2002 Domaine J.M. Boillot Puligny-Montrachet ($55) displays the intense, appley fruit and electric acidity you find in only the greatest vintages. This does an astonishing impression of a $200 Batard Montrachet and could easily improve for 12 to 15 years.

Here are other, less-expensive whites you can cellar for a decade with confidence:

2002 Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Spatlese ($19). For our purposes, I'll consider spatlese (late-harvest) wines to be dry, because while they are lightly sweet in youth, they tend to lose sugar as they gain complexity with cellaring. This complex, plump wine from a top Mosel vineyard and producer will emerge as something far more complex when it loses its baby fat.

2000 Joh. Jos. Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett ($24). This exceptional Mosel producer is renowned for making long-lived wines even at the relatively dry kabinett level. At 10 to 15 years, they take on an ethereal quality that is quite lovely. Look for this producer's wines from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard as well.

2000 Domaine Weinbach "Clos des Capucins" Riesling Schlossberg ($34). Weinbach rates close behind Zind-Humbrecht in the Alsace hierarchy, and this bone-dry wine from a Grand Cru vineyard shows why. It's a tightly wrapped, almost severe wine now, but the potential for its mineral, pear and nut flavors to expand is obvious. It will be magnificent after 2010.

1999 Domaines des Baumard "Clos du Papillon" Savennieres ($25). The Savennieres village in the Loire Valley is known for its long-aging, bone-dry chenin blancs. At an age when most whites are beginning to tire, this butterfly is still a caterpillar. I would liken this gripping wine to a coiled spring. It should be sprung in another six to 10 years.

2001 Chateau Carbonnieux, Pessac-Leognan ($26). Smoky, herbal and restrained in youth, this wine will likely take on a honeyed quality with a decade's patience.

2002 Meyer-Fonne Tokay Pinot Gris Reserve Particuliere ($19). This lush, spicy wine shows extraordinary depth and potential. Behind its creamy texture lie fine acidity and the potential to be a classic in 10 years.

2003 Mount Horrocks Riesling, Clare Valley($25). Conventional wisdom says dry Australian rieslings should be drunk young, but Aussies contend their best can age as well as any in the world. This is an excellent, structured, gripping but austere wine that just might prove them right - especially since it is bottled with modern screw-top technology. Think of it as an experiment.

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