Assessing northern Medoc blind LMD
Image courtesy: Laure Marie Ducloy

By Panos Kakaviatos for Total Wine

Tasting barrel samples comes down to intuition and experience. How is the texture on the palate? Grainy or silky? Coarse or so polished that it seems to lack character?

Tasters who travel from around the world to Bordeaux each year have grown accustomed to tasting barrel samples. And they understand that a barrel sample is like a prenatal wine.

Consider the fact that much Bordeaux is only bottled after it ages for over one year in barrels. When the en primeur tastings occur, the wine has not yet finished its required aging in oak before bottling. And bottling means birth. That’s when a wine is actually born as a final product. Once in bottle, that’s it. Smart buyers of quality Bordeaux understand that their bottles need to age longer in their cellars for the wine to improve. Furthermore, as Château Phélan Segur manager Fabrice Bacquey explained over lunch: aromas from barrel samples are mainly primary, so tasters are not looking for bouquets. Aromatic complexity comes in later stages in the wine’s life.

Tasting barrel samples, and asking how the wine will be in, say, 15 years, is almost like asking someone to pull out a crystal ball. Yet, barrel samples deliver valuable clues.

Belair Monange

1. Tannin management

Tannin is one such clue. A hallmark of red Bordeaux, tannins come from the grape skins and pips of the grapes. As grape juices ferment in full contact with them, tannin extraction occurs. And like tea, you can over extract or under extract. You can have poor quality or you can have great quality – or something in between. As fellow wine writer Adam Lechmere explains:

“Tasting Bordeaux from barrel is all about tannin management. Tannin makes up the structure of the red wine and can be a good indicator of a wine’s ability to age. It should be present and it should be ripe and tasters should be able to detect fruit underneath.”

Chateau Latour 2014 2

2. Ripeness

Ripe tannin is essential – and that means ripe fruit. So Bordeaux barrel samples will give off primary aromas that can indicate levels of ripeness in grapes when they were picked. Tasters seek notes that can vary from green as a grasshopper to over-ripe baked prunes. Obviously the better aromas are in between – and what tasters appreciate are fresh and ripe and clean fruit aromas that can develop later in the wine’s life into a complex bouquet.

Contrary to what some people may think, barrel aging is not meant only to lend oak flavors to wine. No, barrels are first and foremost used as an effective form of slow oxidation. Why slowly oxidize the wines? Tannin! It can taste dry and astringent in barrel samples. So the slow, gentle oxidation of wine during the barrel aging decreases astringency and adds suppleness. It also enhances and stabilizes red wine color.

And no serious taster who assesses up to 75 wines in a day (I think 100 is far too much) forgets to bring lip balm. The tannins also can dry out one’s lips! And if you catch anyone going to a tasting with a white shirt, you can tell that that person is a neophyte.

3. Acidity

Acidity is yet another essential factor in wine, as it can add notions of freshness and vivacity in the right amount. If too little, the barrel sample will taste flat and lifeless. If too high, it will accentuate the astringency of the tannin and make your mouth pucker – not a particularly pleasant sensation. The high levels of acidity in both reds and whites in 2014 were felt. As Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier explained: “You needed to ensure very ripe fruit in 2014, so that it could balance the high tannin and high acidity of the vintage.” Thankfully, many of the barrel samples assessed in the 2014 vintage proved both balanced and delicious.

Blind tasting Sauternes

4. White Wines

Acidity and fruit ripeness are the main factors when tasting white wines from barrel because white wines do not include grape-based tannins that red wines have. Olivier Bernard produces both red and white, and he explained how important it was for vintners to pick grapes later for whites as well – again to balance out high acidities and to prevent what he calls “varietal character.”

Sauvignon Blanc, one of the two white grapes used to make white Bordeaux, can taste simple when not optimally ripe – and the high acidity of 2014 can accentuate that simple “varietal character.” Some of the less successful white barrels samples tasted slightly under-ripe because producers may have brought in the grapes a bit too early. So when tasting white wines, one looks at the balance between acidities and ripeness. Of course, for those wines that are barrel aged (not all white wines are), tasters assess the influence of the barrel on taste as they do for red wines.

5. Oak flavors

Indeed, the potential flavor influence of oak is essential, primarily for red barrel samples, as aging in oak integrates aromatic compounds from the oak with the wine’s intrinsic aromas. These compounds can positively contribute to a wine’s richness and flavor complexity. Or not. So tasting from barrel also means looking out for the flavor influences of oak aging.

Late harvest Sauternes and Barsac wines can be the most difficult to taste from barrel, as tasters often focus too much on sweetness. What is important is to assess all aspects of these barrel samples: how high is the acidity and how well does it balance the sweetness of the vintage?

Clinet 2001

6. Being flexible

It is important also to be flexible in judging barrel samples. Sometimes the blend is not final – what the estates have you taste is an approximation of what that final blend will be. In any case, it is meant to be a representative sample of what will be bottled.

No one has a crystal ball. Fine Bordeaux can be a mysterious and magical drink. It can evolve in bottle for years and tasting scores of barrel samples per day in Bordeaux in a single week or even two weeks never is an infallible measure of how your wine will age in bottle. For these reasons, tasters often offer approximate ranges rather than single scores when grading barrel samples.

7. Palates aplenty

Finally, we are entering an era where no single critic dominates wine appreciation. You should be your best critic, by buying and trying the wines yourself. In conclusions to my blog for Total Wine, I include comments from fellow wine writers from around the world who regularly attend the Bordeaux en primeur campaigns to bring international perspective to the 2014 vintage. One finds over time that opinions vary. I tend to appreciate wines with vivacity, which combines ripe fruit with cool and fresh aromatics, giving the impression of more life to a wine. In that sense, I really like 2014 in many cases. Others prefer higher levels of richness, higher alcohol and more oak like notes. It is a question of taste above all.