Over a Barrel

Winery samples seldom reflect how the wine will taste when it hits the shelves, so beware when buying a bottle


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If you’ve visited a winery and taken a tour, you’ve most likely encountered the famous barrel tasting, which is usually preceded by a discourse on clone varieties, the magic of inflatable-bag presses and how they delicately crush the grapes, the advantages of open-top fermenters, and the virtues of French Alliers versus Nevers oak for aging reds.

At some point, the agile young winemaker impressively leaps atop a barrel of new cabernet sauvignon, long glass wine slave in one hand (for all the old “heads,” it looks like an oversized bong), and wine glasses in the other hand. He removes the bung from the top of the barrel, inserts the slave, and sucks up enough wine to lay into the glasses. He passes them around to his audience and announces: “This is our 2009. Still in oak, but we believe it’s out finest wine ever.”

That’s it. Got to taste this.

But this also is where the big mistake begins for many people.

People do get swept up in the moment and make judgments about buying wines from tasting-barrel samples. Whether in the Leelanau or Napa, the proximity to the birth of wine can be very enticing. Next thing you know, you want to advance-order a case of the 2009, not to be bottled for another year. It arrives a year and some months later, and it doesn’t taste anything like the initial sample. Big disappointment.

Well, you may not be wrong. A lot probably has happened to that wine since you visited the winery.

Barrel samples are not definitive wisdom about a wine. At best, they are a peek into the world of the winemaker. But realistically, barrel samples don’t tell a lot about how the wine will turn out.

For a winemaker who follows the growth of his wines from pressing to the cellar year after year, reading into barrel samples makes sense and is essential. But for the rest of us, it’s very dicey to use those samplings as a benchmark in the purchasing of wine.

For one thing, once you leave the winery and that barrel from which you tasted ages and changes, the winemaker may not finish it as it was and may decide that it needs some help from another grape variety. He might blend back some merlot or cabernet franc to his cabernet sauvignon, radically changing what you tasted.

As long as he doesn’t add more than 20-percent new wine to his blend, he legally doesn’t have to tell you or note it on the label, although most do. The wine will still be labeled as simply cabernet sauvignon.

Wine writers are not immune either, and sometimes play fast and loose with barrel-sample tasting, which doesn’t help the wine buyer. A noted wine writer has been known to make definitive recommendations about the quality and aging potential of top bordeaux and burgundies, based on tasting barrel.

So, enjoy barrel samples at the winery, but take them with a grain of salt. It’s much safer to wait until that wine hits the shelves before making your commitment to buy.

Three sweepstakes gold-medal winners from the Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition in August:

>2009 Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Gris ($13.50):

Leelanau Peninsula. Bright peach and apple notes, perfect acidity, balance, and texture. Brilliant winemaking by Lee Lutes.

>2009 Chateau Fontaine Woodland White ($15):

Leelanau Peninsula. Brilliant. Made from Auxerrois grapes of northern Burgundy. Crisp, bright, floral. A luscious wine for the money.

>2009 Forty-Five North Blanc de Pinot Noir ($18):

Close your eyes and taste. It’s French. Except it isn’t. A lush, juicy rosé from pinot noir grapes in northern lower Michigan. Great winemaking.

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