Thursday, December 11, 2008

Barrel Tasting

I've heard it over and over again - "tasting wine out of barrel is not easy." I tasted about 100 wines out of barrels in three days and there was nothing whatsoever difficult about it - the 2007's are absolutely lovely, crystal clear and a pleasure to taste. When they say "barrel tasting isn't easy," I think they mean that it's difficult to predict the future of a wine merely by tasting it in barrel.

Why would it be difficult? I'm no wine scientist, but here's my rudimentary understanding: for one, sulfur is usually added to wine when it's bottled. This stabilizes the wine, an important thing during long bumpy travels by truck and by boat. But it also tends to mute the aromas and flavors of the wine to a varying degree. Another thing - before bottling, wines in barrel must be racked off their lees, the mixture of dead yeast cells and grape matter that settles at the bottom. The term bottle shock refers to the way some wines can retreat into a shell after racking and bottling, in some cases for quite a long time.

Think about it for a moment - the wine has been in barrels large enough to hold about 300 bottles worth, resting in a cold humid cellar for a year. For wine, this is infancy (the womb is the grape?), and in this state it might be at its most perfect. Tasting wine in this state might be akin to looking at a nine year old child and imagining what he or she will be like at age 21. There are definite clues, but it's tough to be exact.

Freddy Mugnier taking wine from barrel.

Anyway, I heard on more than one occasion while in Burgundy that wine is in "a beautiful state" when in barrel right before bottling. I can confirm for you that there was a wonderful freshness and youth to those we tasted. Sure, there were some that were deeply backwards, reductive and foul smelling. But I kid you not, even those were alluring in their own way, especially after some vigorous aeration.

I gained a whole new load of respect for the experience and wisdom of people who can taste from barrel and understand what they're tasting, place it in the context of years past. People who know about the evolution of wine from barrel to bottle to cellar through the years. People who say things like "Wow, that was the best young Mazi-Chambertin from Rousseau that I've ever tasted," and who are not making idle boasts.

How many years of barrel tasting are necessary in order to understand that state of wine? How bout you - any tips on barrel tasting?


Director, Lab Outreach said...

Hi Neil,
What a great adventure!

I'm no expert (which has never stopped me from claiming otherwise on almost any topic) but I'd agree that it's not so much about experience with wine in barrel as it is about stringing together experience with wine in barrel and the same wine in the bottle later on.

Time of year also helps. I was in Burgundy with an importer friend in May. Making sense of the few 07s we tasted then was tough going. For those, it was like looking at a newborn and figuring out what it would be like at 5 or 25.

Speaking of which, good luck with all that. Godspeed!

cheers, jd

Vinogirl said...

Sitting typing this, above a cellar full of barrels, I indeed share your sense of awe for those who can indeed extrapolate what a bottle aged wine will taste like 1, 5, 10 or indeed 20 years from now. But boy isn't it fun trying? Reductiveness?...a good splash racking, whilst watching the Vinodogs wrestle, takes care of most H2S smelliness.

Joe Manekin said...

Neil -

I'm really enjoying these Burgundy trip posts. A lot. They're fun to read, and you really capture the experience of wine geekdom in a way few others do, whether it's barrel tasting or burgundy budget allocation.

Not sure what the full time j-o is for you, but I'd be awfully surprised if it didn't involve some writing....


Anonymous said...

I wonder why the red wines in them cold cellars taste so good and in my unheated apartment, they taste so bad!
Perhaps its something in the difference between barrels and bottles?
I can only drink whites from november through april, the reds are just too darn cold!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Neil. I think sometimes the wine is just so cold in the middle of winter in the casks that it's pretty difficult to make an opinion, especially with long-elevage wines which have not been vinified to be rushed to the market.
Speaking of some wines that like to hide behind reduction and awful first-noses, you're so right to say "even those were alluring in their own way, especially after some vigorous aeration".
Many vintners know their wines like if they were their children and can foreview what they will turn after many more months of elevage and the racking and bottling ordeal. I'm very admirative of these abilities.

Brooklynguy said...

hey jd (and I'm glad that you've now adopted "jd" as your moniker, at least while here) - you're right. the progression is what's hard to predict. i didn't know you went over there. how come no fanfare?

where do you make wine Vinogirl?

hey old skool - thanks for the kind words. my real work does involve some writing, but in a technical way. i need to find new work...good to see you round these parts.

anon - that is weird. i find htat i like reds a bit colder than they're supposed to be served.

Bert!! - great to see you round here too. thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Its an interesting question to raise.
I think it also depends on the vintage.
I have found the 2007s easy to taste from the beginning. Even with all the malic acid they had to start with. 2004 and 2005 were harder, in different ways though.