What To Look For When Barrel Tasting Wines

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - June 16, 2010
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When you travel in classic wine-growing regions of the world, it is inevitable that you will, at some point, have to barrel taste. That is, taste unfinished wine directly from the barrel.

This is a necessary evil for those in the profession of wine buying, selling and recommending. It’s something everyday consumers almost never think about, but if you plan to visit wineries, especially those small, family-run producers, you will definitely be barrel tasting. I just returned from doing just that in France.

One of the most important things to remember when tasting wines directly from the barrel is to look for the same things that you would in a finished wine.

One of those things, for me, is balance. If a wine is unbalanced in the barrel, chances are that, when the wine is bottled, it will remain that way. There is very little a good winemaker should or can do to realign the amounts of tannin, acidity, alcohol or fruit in their wine.


I realize that some wine-makers go through the somewhat uncouth process of lowering their alcohol contents, adding acidity or color, but they ultimately alter the wine into something that does not represent the true product. Some wine-makers call these “cheater wines.”

Nonetheless, balance in the barrel is definitely a character any winemaker will look for and promote into the bottle. Some things you want to see that are balanced are tannin, acidity, fruit and alcohol. Some think that it takes an expert to find all these things in the wine, but, in fact, any amateur can find them. Balance is just another word for harmony and, if you drink wine enough, you will naturally find it. Even non-connoisseurs quite easily see the difference between good and truly great wines. It doesn’t take a super-taster to find greatness. Greatness in wine presents itself already in the barrel.

One thing that the casual wine drinker will find difficult in barrel tasting is when the wine is still undergoing or just finished the malolactic fermentation. This is the process by which the harsh malic acid in the wine is changed into a softer lactic acid. Almost every wine in the world goes through this process. Not only does it make the wine more palatable and easier to take, but also produces carbon dioxide. This creates a prickly, tactile sensation on the tongue that is uncommon and unwanted in finished still wines. Obviously, sparkling wines are a different story.

Quite often winemakers refer to each wine as a person. And, as such, wine in barrel is truly a “baby” wine. The malolactic fermentation is a baby that is teething. It’s not always happy and isn’t quite cuddly and cute. The wine does not always show very well and can be quite awkward.

I try not to taste wines that are going through this, but when you travel 5,000 miles to visit, you can’t exactly ask the wine to quickly go through its processes just for you.

Tasting wines out of barrels is really not as intimidating as you may think. It’s usually a ton of fun, and you get to see the wine in its infancy and hear the wine-maker talk about his or her “baby.” Don’t let the little apprehension stop you from enjoying the wonders that lie within the great cellars of the world.

Recommendations: 2008 Bottega Vinaia Pinot Grigio ($16) Nothing snooty about this Pinot Grigio. It’s simply fun, easy to drink with nice ripe fruit and a soft citrusy palate. Great for everyday drinking. 2007 Planeta “Cometa” ($37) This is 100 percent Fiano that has a stunning array of tropical and citrus fruit with a flowery, even mineral edge to it. It is rich but not overweight with an almost sweet penetrating flavor that is nearly akin to Meursault. Really lovely juice.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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