Your Comprehensive Guide to Tasting Wine from the Barrel

Tasting Wine from the Barrel

When tasting wine from the barrel, it’s important to think about the overall balance of the wine’s flavors. Photo Credit: Flickr CC user Johnn

 My first barrel tasting experience was a massive success, in part because I had a knowledgeable mentor walking me through the process. The head winemaker was a close family friend, and he offered to take me and four of my relatives on a private tasting in the barrel room. He uncorked one of the barrels, dipped a narrow thief into the wine, and carefully dribbled the tiniest portion of California Cabernet Sauvignon into each of our glasses. He warned us, “The Cab is really young. It’s going to smell and taste extremely intense at this stage.” Sure enough, my lips instantly puckered at the prominent tannins. But as I continued tasting wine from the barrel, I learned to look past this initial intensity, finding unexpected balance in these wines.

 
Tasting wine from the barrel is an essential experience that every serious collector should have at least once. Barrel tastings can teach you a great deal about the vintage, including how long the wine will age, and even its potential value on the secondary market. By learning what to identify (and what to ignore) in a tasting, you’ll be able to pick the best wines for your cellar and palate.

Why Is Barrel Tasting Important?

While tasting wine from the barrel is a pleasurable experience in itself, it has at least four other benefits that collectors can use to their advantage.

En Primeur Investments

Barrel tastings give you unique insight into top wine vintages years before they’re released on the market. During En Primeur week in Bordeaux, critics and collectors gather in barrel rooms around the region hoping to sample the world’s most valuable wines. At this stage, futures for these wines are still inexpensive because the wine hasn’t even been bottled yet. You can get a case of 2016 Ausone futures for about $800 per bottle, on average. And after these wines mature for 10 years, they could be worth as much as $1,300 each (like Ausone 2009)–that’s a $500 increase in price. Barrel tastings are your first step to successfully investing in wine futures or pre-arrivals.

Estimated Bottling Dates

Even if you’re not interested in buying futures, you can still use barrel tastings to anticipate how long it will be for the wine to reach the market, and time your buying habits and budget accordingly. Let’s say you taste a Bordeaux blend from the barrel, and find that the wine tastes especially young for its age. You can assume that the winemaker will likely keep this vintage in the barrel a few months longer than usual. This gives you extra time to budget for that vintage, and a better idea of when the wine might be bottled.

Quality

This is one of the biggest reasons for tasting wine from the barrel. Tasting the wine early like this can tell you a great deal about vintage quality, especially when you compare barrels from different vintages. You might find that 2016 barrels taste balanced at first, but when you compare that vintage to wine sitting in the 2015 barrels, you might realize that the 2016 vintage is actually a bit underripe. Identifying these potential flaws early helps you learn which wines to go all in for and which to buy with caution.

Palate Refinement

It takes practice to learn how to taste around the bold, sometimes spiky flavors of a barrelled wine. While the wine is in the barrel, every flavor and aroma is magnified tenfold, making it difficult to tell whether the wine will age well or not. The more you taste wine from this way, the better your palate will get at identifying the balance underneath these flavors.

Choosing a Location to Taste from the Barrel

If you visit any wine region in the world, chances are, at least one winery will offer barrel tastings. However, a barrel room’s location matters more than you might think. As a collector, you’ll find more value in a Bordeaux barrel tasting than you will in a Connecticut barrel tasting, since there’s more competition on the secondary market for Bordeaux wines. By trying Bordeaux wines during En Primeur week, you increase your chances of investing in the best futures, which will improve your profit margin later.

Here are the best regions for barrel tasting, in order from most useful to least useful for your collection:

Bordeaux is by far the most popular destination for tasting wine from the barrel because some of the top producers in the area participate in En Primeur week events in the spring. These wineries rely heavily on futures purchases, and encourage collectors to sample their wines early. Similarly, many Burgundy producers also offer barrel tastings before their wines are bottled, but this is somewhat less common than it is in Bordeaux. Napa Valley’s barrel tasting opportunities are more limited than they are in France, yet you can still get plenty of benefit from a barrel tasting tour in Napa. Krupp Brothers and Pine Ridge, among many others, offer barrel tastings of their latest vintages. Compared to Napa, Sonoma doesn’t offer quite as many barrel tasting opportunities, but you can still sample some top wines from this region, including Alesia. Finally, Rhône offers far fewer barrel tasting opportunities than its Burgundian and Bordeaux neighbors. Look for barrel tasting opportunities at Ogier in the northern Rhône.

How to Book a Barrel Tasting

Once you’ve decided where you want to take your barrel tasting tour, you’ll need to book each of your visits well in advance, especially in popular regions like Bordeaux. Some of the top producers have a waitlist of more than a year to get into the barrel room. When booking tastings, we suggest you:

  • Avoid multi-winery tours: These tend to be more touristy, and often feature lower-quality producers. You might end up visiting a handful of wineries that don’t interest you, or wineries that aren’t as investment-worthy. Book your barrel tastings individually with the producers you enjoy instead.
  • Plan one year in advance: Make a list of your favorite wineries in the area, and make appointments with each of them before their calendars fill up. You can book directly with the winery; you don’t have to use a third party booking agent.
  • Book a private tasting, if available: One-on-one appointments give you the chance to speak directly with the winemaker and get more information about the vintage.
  • Space out your visits: Don’t book more than two barrel tastings per day. Give yourself four hours per winery, minimum. This gives you time to travel to each winery, fully enjoy the tasting experience, and get to the next location in time. Arriving late to a winery could force them to cancel your appointment entirely.
  • Familiarize yourself with the estate: Some wineries only allow top critics or close friends of the estate to sample their wines in the barrel. You could increase your chances of getting an appointment in one of these sought-after barrel rooms if you attend regular bottle tastings, sign up for the wine mailing list, or buy wine from the estate frequently. Getting to know the estate’s wines, and its winemakers, will also teach you what to look for in these wines when you eventually taste them from the barrel.

Tasting Wine from the Barrel: Analyzing Flavors

Getting an appointment at a top winery can be difficult, but often, actually tasting wine from the barrel is even harder. That’s because truly age-worthy, collectible wines made at the top wineries in the world tend to be harsh in their youth. While the bottled version of a wine like Le Pin may be graceful and supple, in the barrel, the wine has rough tannins, an astringent personality, and offensively strong oak. This is just a sign the wine is too immature to show its refined features. When tasting wine from the barrel, you need to taste “around” the harsh flavors, finding the broad brushstrokes of balance and age-worthiness hidden underneath all of that tannin and oak.

Here’s one way to approach barreled wine for the first time:

Tasting Wine from the Barrel

Ignore the oak and tannins for now, and search for the subtle fruit notes instead. What kind of fruit are you tasting? If the wine has a green, bell pepper-like quality, it’s possible that the grapes are underripe. If the wine tastes especially sweet or alcohol-heavy, it’s a sign that the grapes are overripe. A balanced wine will taste like a happy medium between these two: slightly sweet fruit, with some hint of floral or herbaceous depth.

Tasting Wine from the Barrel

After you’ve found the fruit, you can revisit the tannins. Age-worthy wines will have very prominent tannins at the barreling stage that will cause your lips to pucker. However, these tannins should still be relatively smooth on the palate. Very raspy tannins point to a wine that’s a little too overripe.

Tasting Wine from the Barrel

Wine straight from the barrel will naturally smell like new wood or oaky spices. It’s alright if this scent is overpowering in the glass at this stage. The oak aroma and flavor will likely dissipate as the wine matures in the bottle later. What you should look for is a wine that still has some layers of fruit and tannin, in addition to the oak. If you only smell and taste oak in the glass, it may be a sign that the wine isn’t very balanced.

Tasting Wine from the Barrel

This brings us to the last step when tasting wine from the barrel. After you’ve identified all three components, from fruit to oak, go back one final time to see how all of these moving parts relate to each other. Each component will feel a little unrefined and rough, but they should taste like they’re in proportion with each other. A wine that has all oak flavor and virtually no fruit likely won’t improve much over time.

If you notice a flavor seems too prominent, or out of place, feel free to ask the winemaker about it. It’s possible that this is the result of an unusual winemaking technique, or simply a quirk of the vintage. At top estates, winemakers are usually willing to have honest conversations with tasters about the pros and cons of each vintage, and are often more than happy to answer your questions.

How to Tell Whether a Vintage Is Worth Buying

For most collectors, the reason behind tasting wine from the barrel is to get valuable information about a vintage before they invest in it. There are two main methods for determining whether a wine is a good investment:

By Preferred Style

The simplest way to decide whether a wine is worth buying is to choose vintages that best showcase the qualities that you love in a wine. Do you like smooth tannins, or those with a rougher feel? Are your favorite wines fruit-forward, or more floral? Look for these signs in the barrel.

By Age-Worthiness

If you’re more interested in reselling your wine than drinking it, you might look for barrels that contain the most age-worthy bottles instead. These wines will have the most prominent tannins, strong (yet balanced) oak, and fruits that taste somewhat soft (rather than especially sweet or alcohol-laden).

Sample More Than One Barrel

At the end of the day, the key to successfully tasting wine from the barrel is to try as many different vintages and barrel styles as you can from a single winery. Start with the winemaker’s favorite barrel (just about every winemaker has one), then sample that same wine from other cooperages. Try other varietals and vintages as well, noting the major differences between them. The more barrels you try, the more information you’ll have to make a wise investment choice. As you gain experience with these young wines, you’ll find these tasting events incredibly rewarding.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storageContact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

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