Over a Barrel

Keep the sampling of in-progress wine to the experts; you’re not missing much


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At a dinner party one night, a well-traveled couple who had just returned from a wine tour of France was bent on impressing the assembled guests. They had visited a well-known chateau and met with the owner — now their new best friend — whom they identified only by his first name (Phillippe, of course).

The assumption here being, I presume, that everyone at the table should already know his last name or feel foolish. 

Then they got around to the really big stuff: They had the opportunity to sample the new wine for that year, right after harvest. It came straight from the barrel, and they could tell that this vintage was going to be a very good year. 

The man started into discussion of the technical aspects of the wine, lost his way, and stumbled on, until everyone at the table began feeling uncomfortable, and the subject was changed.

The reality about barrel sampling is that it tells most of us virtually nothing about how the wine is going to turn out a few years down the road. 

Still, wineries do use them with visitors to great dramatic effect. The winemaker or tour leader removes the bung (the stopper) from the barrel and inserts a long glass tube about 2 or 3 feet long (it’s called a wine thief). By sucking air out, a generous enough amount of wine is extracted from the barrel to provide three or four tasting samples. 

The visitors then swirl, sniff, and taste, and some might offer their view of this new baby wine.

It’s an opportunity to check a just-pressed wine’s traits. Frankly, I have done many barrel samplings and have never been able to tell much about a new red wine — except that it is rough, horribly tannic, and usually reminds me of sweet grape soda pop. But I get absolutely no clue about how it is going to taste in two years. At best, it tastes like a Beaujolais Nouveau, just arrived and suddenly re-fermenting on the store shelf.

What I have gotten from the barrel sample is an understanding of why they don’t bottle the stuff for a year or two, or more. It’s just undrinkable in those early stages. I avoid barrel sampling when possible. Occasionally, I’ll taste them if a winemaker is trying to make a point about development of his wine. But that’s a different story. 

Winemakers, oenologists, and vineyard managers need to be steeped in the technical side of winemaking. They need to keep an eye on the wine as it ages in those first few months. They need to assure that it’s stable and going through various stages of development correctly — and barrel sampling tells them a lot. 

For us as consumers, it’s certainly fun to do, and we should when we have the opportunity. But trying to read something into the future of a wine, or make broad pronouncements on the basis of something that’s going to change vastly before it truly be-comes wine, is foolish. 

At the end of the day, remember that it’s all just grape juice.

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