What to look for in a barrel sample.

This weekend marks Yakima Valley’s annual Spring Barrel Tasting event.  It is the most popular annual event for the Valley vintners and those who appreciate fine wines.

Besides enjoying the predictably sunny weather in eastern Washington, barrel-tasting weekend is an opportunity to gain insight into the artistic process behind the production at each winery. During this festive weekend you will have an opportunity to taste unfinished wines and immediately compare them to the same “finished” wine from the bottle.  But what should you be looking for in a young wine? What should you expect to taste?  If the wine is unfinished, what will it taste like once it is in the bottle?

Here are some recommendations for you as you taste wines from the barrel.

What to Expect.
Young wines, especially from the barrel, are going to be  fruity. They smell and taste more like juice than wine.

What to look for.
What type of fruit do you taste and how intense is it? The fruit should show appropriate ripeness, overripeness can mark a wine as “over the top” or unbalanced.  Overripeness occurs when the grape  stays on the vine too long, and thus raises a flag to make sure the components in the palate are not unbalanced. Overripe wines often lack acidity, obvious in alcohol and become even more so when bottled.

Underripeness results in  “green” aromas and flavors. Bell peppers and tomato leaf appear in red wines, and citric acid for most whites. These characters manifest themselves even more as the wine ages.

Oak.
A wine produced in new oak will have much of the aroma and flavor of the new wood. This aroma and flavor of toast, vanilla, cedar, butterscotch, or baking spices will not be integrated with the wine. In most cases, these characters will blend into the wine and soften over time. In some cases this oakiness will be overpowering and stick out like a sore thumb. The oak treatment can also result in an increase in tannic structure of the wine, which is of special importance to the longevity and overall character of a red wine.

Tannins.
Red wines in the barrel will generally have a lot more tannin than a finished wine. Tannin is part of the skeleton of a red wine. If the wine has too little or too much tannin, you can make your assessment of the quality and longevity of the wine. The quality of the tannin is important as well, with ripe tannin being smooth and adding texture to the wine. Hard, dry, rough or raspy tannin can make a wine unpleasant and may be a sign of inappropriate ripeness or wine-making. You should look for velvety, ripe and silky tannin.

Balance.
In a young wine you are looking for balance. Is the wine extremely intense or finesseful and elegant? Does it have all the pieces in the right place and is it harmonious?  This is a positive attribute for any wine.

There is a lot that can happen before bottling so when you are looking at purchasing “futures” of any unfinished wine, consider the producer and his/her finished wines.

Enjoy the journey from barrel to bottle!

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