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Are Barrel Tastings Worthwhile?
By Michael Apstein
Feb 4, 2014
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Every spring, as predictably as the blooming of daffodils, journalists and merchants attend the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux and bombard us with reams of tasting notes.  These tastings, organized by the Bordeaux producers, show the new vintage, while it is still aging in barrel.  Showing wines while they are still developing prior to release is a practice not limited to Bordeaux.  Producers in California, Burgundy, and Australia organize such tastings as well, albeit not as famously or comprehensively as the Bordelais.  Indeed, wherever great wines are made, producers are eager to show them early on, just as critics and merchants are keen to taste them for comment or purchase.  Despite the enthusiasm of these various participants, I would assert that what can be learned from these tastings is actually quite limited and that, with rare exceptions, one ought never make pronouncements about particular wines.

A Moving Target

At barrel tastings, the young wines offered for tasting are still evolving and developing.  Of course, great wines evolve and develop all the time, even after they have been bottled, but while they are in barrel, the wines evolve dramatically over a relatively short period.  Remember:  The grapes were harvested as recently as the preceding fall (or perhaps a year earlier), and though they have been “vinified” or turned into wine, they are certainly not “finished” wines.  They still need to complete their malolactic fermentation, a bacterial process that changes harsh malic acid to gentler lactic acid, and to rest in barrel for additional time, up to 36 months, depending on the region and the winemaker’s preferences.  And of course, the producer still must make the final blend. 

What’s the Blend?

Blending is tedious and demanding work.  The winemaker tastes every barrel and decides whether the wine’s quality is worthy of the producer’s name--or whether it needs to be relegated to a second or third label, or sold off in bulk.  To complicate matters, in Bordeaux, California, or any region where the bottled wine is a blend of wines made from different grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, for example), the winemaker must decide what proportion of these individual wines to use. 

Take, for example, the potential mind-boggling choices at Quintessa in the Rutherford section of Napa Valley.  The extraordinary diversity of soils and exposures is apparent immediately from their viewing station in the middle of the property:  Rolling hills, vines planted every which way, some with northern exposure, some with western or eastern exposure.  And you don’t need a degree in geology to identify the clear and dramatic differences in soil.  There are vineyard blocks with white soil, while others glow red in the sunlight.  Five red varieties are planted at Quintessa, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Carménère.  Multiply the different soils and exposures by the different grapes, and you get literally hundreds of different barrels of wine.

Typically, in wine regions where a blend is made from several varieties of grapes, such as Bordeaux, producers will assemble a “representative blend” to approximate the final blend for tasters.  Just how “representative” the blend actually is and whether it approximates what will be the finished product remains open to much discussion.  There is the obvious temptation to show only the best batches to people who will be critiquing or buying the wines. 

Blending Parcels and Barrels, not Grapes

Even in areas like Burgundy, where only one grape variety is used, different parts of even a small vineyard produces different wines.  At Clos de Tart, a Grand Cru vineyard in Morey St. Denis, winemaker Sylvain Pitiot divides the 20-acre vineyard into six different parcels.  This is because the soils and exposures are slightly different, and because the wine sourced from these different sites will accordingly taste quite different despite the fact that all of it is made from Pinot Noir.

Even wine from a single parcel will taste different depending on the age and type of the barrel used for aging:  Was it a new barrel or one that was a year old?  The cooper who made the barrel adds another dimension--one cooper’s “light” toast is another’s “medium” toast.  (Toasting refers to the treatment the interior of the barrel receives from fire).  Years ago Robert Mondavi did a very illuminating tasting to demonstrate these differences.  He aged the same wine in barrels made by different coopers from five different types of oak.  The “same wine” had morphed into five entirely different ones.

To make matters even more complicated, the rate at which the wine develops differs in each barrel.  The wine in some barrels goes through malolactic fermentation quickly, while the same wine in another barrel will take its time.  In Burgundy, it’s easy to understand how the “same” wine drawn from two barrels might taste dramatically different.

Tank Sample

In the past, bottling was often barrel by barrel, but today, almost all producers make their final blend--whether from different varietal wines or from different plots within the same vineyard--and then put the blended wine back into a large tank to rest before bottling.  A sample from this tank is still referred to as a “barrel sample,” but more accurately should be called a tank sample since the blend is complete and the wine is practically ready for bottling.

The question to ask about a review based on a barrel sample is:  Is this a “representative blend,” a sample from a single barrel, or a tank sample?  The tank sample will actually give a reasonable approximation of the bottled wine since most of the wine’s early evolution has occurred. 

What Can You Learn

Despite the shortcomings involved, you can still learn a lot by tasting wines from barrel, so don’t ignore writers’ or merchants’ notes entirely.  Barrel tastings do allow you to obtain a clear sense of the vintage in general.  Tasting with top négociants in Burgundy or the Rhône, for example, gives an excellent sense of the vintage since these producers obtain their wines from throughout their respective regions.  Tasting barrel samples from a wide variety of producers throughout California allows the same sort of overall assessment of the vintage.  Barrel sample tastings also allow one to determine whether one area excelled by comparison with another--how, for example, did Napa Cabernet compare with those from Sonoma or Paso Robles?

Rely on Assessments of Bottled Wines

Consumers need not rely on notes obtained from tasting barrel samples to make their choices of individual wines.  There are plenty of reports that assess individual wines from the same vintage after they have been bottled.  Tuscan producers from Chianti, Montepulciano and Montalcino collaborate every February to show the latest bottled vintage of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.  Similarly, producers in Piedmont show the latest bottled vintage of Barolo and Barbaresco every year in May. 

Throughout Italy, individual regions from Puglia to Campania are embracing the idea of showing the wines of a particular vintage as a group after they are bottled.  The French organize annual tastings every April to highlight the differences among the various AOCs in the Languedoc by tasting bottled wines from the most recent vintages.  The Union des Grands Crus (UGC), a collaboration of top Bordeaux châteaux, holds tastings of recently bottled wine each year in New York and other US cities.  Notes from seasoned critics and merchants attending these tastings can be quite valuable for determining which individual wines to buy or at least to narrow down the ones you should taste.

One hopes California producers will hold more of these kinds of collaborative tastings for the trade.

Producer, Producer, Producer

Of course, the problem with relying on tasting of wines after they’ve been bottled is availability.  By the time you taste a limited-production wine, it may be hard to find or entirely sold out.  The solution is to rely on tastings of barrel samples to assess the vintage--not the individual wine--and then buy from producers you’ve liked in the past.   If the vintage is highly regarded and you know the producer’s style, then the individual wine is likely to be excellent.  Remember the first rule about buying wine--producer, producer, producer.

Can you accurately assess an individual wine from a barrel sample?  I think not. The final wine is a sum of all of the components, and the winemaker is like a chef (as in chef de cave) pulling together a complex sauce from stocks, tasting along the way before adding finishing touches.  Tasting an individual stock gives you only a glimpse of the final sauce.

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E-mail me your thoughts about barrel tastings at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein