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On a recent trip to Napa and Sonoma, I was able to barrel taste wines at several wonderful wineries. Though the experience was fun, I found such young wines difficult to comprehend.
Terroirist Greg Golec recently wrote about the joys of tasting wines with some age on them and the effect of age on taste. Similarly, understanding what to expect from barrel samples can make the experience more enjoyable and educational.
For someone unaccustomed to tasting wine right from the barrel, the tannins and acid can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to taste beyond the fruit and oak on the front of your palate, let alone predict how the wine will taste as it ages.
I posed this question to a few of our guides and did some follow up research to come up with the following thoughts on appreciating wine straight from the barrel.
1. Pay extra attention to the nose. Notes that may not quite compete with the overpowering flavors in a young wine are more likely to be present on the nose.
2. Is it complex and balanced? Even early on, balance — or the interaction between fruit, acid, and tannins – is important. A wine’s components may become better integrated as it ages and certain components mellow out, but a simple wine is not likely to gain much in terms of structure. According to Rusty Gaffney, editor of PinotFile and the subject of an upcoming Terroirist interview, “If a wine is balanced when I taste it young, it is almost certainly to hold up for several years. A wine that is out of balance initially will never become balanced over time.”
3. With big reds, look for tannins. The stronger the better, as tannins act as a preservative and add structure and backbone to a wine. Anything less than strong tannins at this point is noteworthy.
4. Ask how long it’s been in the barrel, and when they plan to bottle. This will help you interpret what you’re tasting. If it’s close to bottling, taste it as you would any young wine. If it has time to go in the barrel, recognize that the tannins and oak will soften upon bottling.
5. Different grapes behave differently early on. Ask the winemaker what characteristics she expects to subside or emerge for the particular varietals that you’re tasting.
6. Pay attention to the finish. Importantly, does it finish long and balanced? You don’t want to notice the alcohol, which will likely manifest as heat later on. The length of the finish provides another indication of how long the wine will age – a long finish suggests that the wine has the structure and components to last.
7. If you’re considering buying futures on a barrel, compare the barrel sample with a taste from the current release. Be sure to ask whether the fruit source or any production methods varied.
8. When possible, compare related barrels to gain a better understanding of the wine. Winemakers may invite you to taste different vintages, source vineyards, barrel types, or production methods side-by-side. This can be fun and help you taste the wine from a different perspective. During my visit to Pride Mountain Vineyards, for example, I was able to taste Cab from two different vineyard blocks in two different barrels. One wine had lots of delicious fruit at the front — but quickly evaporated, with virtually zero finish. The second wine wasn’t as fruit-forward, but had huge tannins and seemed to have good structure. Our guide explained that while neither barrel would make a complete wine, a blend of the two would likely be fantastic.