So I bought tickets for a barrel tasting event at a local vineyard (Connecticut, so I'm not expecting Napa!)
But what *should* I expect? I'm not a wine expert, but did my fair share of wine tastings when we lived out in the Bay Area. What's the "draw" of barrel tasting? Is it so that you can taste how the wine matures in the barrel?
While I have done many "barrel tastings," I've never attended any "event" for these. All were by invitation, or were offered, while I was touring a particular winery.
In each case, the winemaker, or an assistant was there to take notes on the responses of those assembled.
As Brad points out in his post, the wine usually lacks "finish." The trick is to try and offer useful observations to the winemaker, on the perceived pluses and minuses of that/those wine(s).
For members of the press, it's usually to either introduce them to the wine early, in hopes that more tastings will be scheduled and written about, and to create some sort of "buzz" in the wine press. I would also anticipate that input might be considered and be found useful, but am not in the wine press, so have never attended one of these.
What you will possibly find is a mini-event, with a lot of folk getting to taste wines, before they are bottled. Again, most will still need some treatment, and maybe even blended, prior to commercial release. Aspects of these wines will not be complete yet, so one might find what they would consider as "flaws." Still, a good time should be had by all. Some will want to do this to get an idea of what to purchase, upon release. Some will be there to schmooze with other winos and with the winery staff. A few will be there just to drink wine.
Hope that it's fun, and please report what you find. My *guess* would be that you'll encounter a lot of hybrid varietals and many variations on Vidal (also a FR/American hybrid, but one that does fairly well in the Eastern US).
Barrel-tasting requires a different skill-set than wine-tasting. The wines will be harsher, less smooth, less beguiling, as a rule.
Since the wine is in a raw, unresolved state, you will have to disregard certain dominant flavors, especially the oak, and focus instead on subtle flavors in the wine. In the case of unresolved oak (burning, harshness, smokiness, puckeriness, etc.), the trick, at least for me, is to evaluate the quality of fruit and flavors "underneath" the oak, or peeking through the oak.Over time, the dominant oak and other harsh flavors will subside, and the fruit will come forward in a kind of oeno do-si-do. Other spicy flavors and aromas that lend complexity will also emerge that weren't there when the wine was young.
Figuring out what the wine will taste like when the oak resolves -- extrapolating, as it were -- or ignoring the dominant flavors in order to taste more subtle flavors underneath them takes some focus and attention. And, you may be delighted to know that this is the way winemakers taste wine all the time, evaluating which flavors are emerging and which are subsiding in that dance of aging. BTW, lately I've come across more and more barrel samples that resemble the finished wine, but I wouldn't say that's the norm at all.
Yes, talk to the winemaker. Ask him about that dance of flavors -- what will come forward, what will subside. Usually, barrel tastings have a few vintages of the finished wine so that you can taste how the wine evolved over time. Have fun.
re: maria lorraine
I went to the Hopkins Vineyard website and read about their "Barrel Tasting." And, as is sometimes the case, calling it something does not make it so. Your post on the New England board clarifies what the event really was -- an afternoon drinking festival of bottled wines.
Gosh, if you ever come out to California wine country -- north or south -- let me know, and we'll see if we can find you a proper barrel-tasting. Great fun, especially when there is vertical of vintages of the same wine, some in barrels at various stages, some in bottles.
re: maria lorraine
I'm happy to invite you along on a gen-u-wine barrel-tasting, Ric. Indeed, it would be my pleasure!
I've personally been to many "exceptions" open to the public in California. Just to be clear, let's say the criteria that make an event a barrel-tasting are: At least 10 barrels of wine are "thiefed," and the majority of wines tasted are from barrels.
My favorite kinds of barrel-tasting are these:
-- barrel verticals (different vintages of the same wine are thiefed from barrels)
-- barrel components (different components of an established final wine blend are sampled from barrels)
-- different vineyard designates of the same wine varietal from the same winery are sampled from barrels
-- oddball barrels of wine (an obscure varietal, a winemaking experiment), that are not made in large enough quantities to ever be released or distributed
-- a comparison of the exact same wine made differently (ML vs. no-ML, French vs. American oak, Limousin vs.Troncais vs. Nevers; one-year oak vs. two-year oak)
I love it also, when the barrel samples can be compared, as mentioned, to the finished wine in bottles at various stages of aging.
Don't worry, as other suggest , about the type of grape - or whether your palate is qualified to pass judgement on the wine in the barrel or how it will develop before bottling.
The real draw is to talk to the winemaker and add to your overall wine knowledge. This is a chance to learn. It's also a usually a really cool day out.
One of the draws is to get an early impression of the wines, which can be useful if you're thinking about buying them as futures. That's probably more relevant to, say, Bordeaux than Connecticut. And, as the others have pointed out, you'll need some experience with barrel tastings before you're qualified to pass judgement.
Barrell tasting is often over rated. You need a history with the vineyard to understand how a finished wine might taste.
On the other hand, one of the coolest things I got to do was taste different barrels of Siduri pinot from different parts of the same vineyard. One part tasted like a 95-point wine, the other like a tannic mess. But the winemaker said both had to be blended to make a wine that will improve with age. So it can be educational.
Wine is tasted out of barrel frequently over the course of its development. One reason is to determine when is the best time to bottle the wine.
I don't know what type of grapes the CT wines will be made from (vinifera or labrusca), but generally you should expect to taste something nowhere near a "finished" wine. It might be raw, rough, "grapey," etc.
As far as the draw of such events, one draw is that if you end up purchasing the bottled/finished wine, and if you remember what the barrel sample tasted like, you can learn how the wine developed from one point in time to another. A second draw is that you get to taste wine at a stage of development that many other consumers do not get the opportunity to do.