I really enjoy barrel tasting. I wouldn’t directly equate it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but if there is ever a festive atmosphere in northern Sonoma County, barrel tasting would be it. Barrel tasting isn’t just your average wine tasting, it’s a chance for wineries to showcase their future wares straight from the source. Here’s 3 things you should ask while you’re barrel tasting:

  1. Is the barrel French or American (or Hungarian)?

Ever wonder why one Zinfandel or Cabernet tastes so different yet the grapes come from about a mile apart in the same valley? A lot has to do with the kind of barrel the winemaker chose to put the wine in. American barrels generally showcase a stronger, bolder flavor than the French (that’s not a metaphor). You’ll find some hints of vanilla and sometimes some cream soda. Don’t worry. It’s just the flavor profiles. The winemakers aren’t lining the barrels with literal vanilla beans.

The French barrels are more subtle in flavor profiles. You’ll find more of a spice coming from the barrel. In addition, to French and American oak, some wineries go with the 3rd and relatively quiet provider of oak: Hungarian. Those barrels also have a bit of spice but more of a warmth aspect to them. If you stumble upon a Hungarian oak barrel, you’re in for a treat.

  1. Neutral or New Oak?

The life of a barrel is about 2-3 years. During that time, all of the characteristics of the barrel are at full strength. Just like a new car has new car smell, so does a brand new wine barrel. They are fresh off of the dealership’s lot. But sometimes a winemaker doesn’t need a brand new car. They want that used car because they know it’s been broken in and driven 50,000 miles.

That’s where the neutral oak comes in. The wine sleeps in neutral oak, meaning that much less of the oakiness will come through. This can result in a softer mouth feel since the harshness of the oak, especially from wine straight from the barrel, can be exceptionally strong.

Sometimes the winemaker will blend wine from both new and neutral oak. Think of that as a chef using both salt and other seasoning to bring out the taste of dish.

Barrel tasting at Pedroncelli winery (hashtag #ped90th)

  1. A lot or a little toast?

When the wine world refers to toast in a barrel, they’re not referring to breakfast. Have you ever seen a cremé brulee torch? It’s small, high powered lighter designed to quickly crisp up the top of the cremé brulee dessert.

Now, imagine that in big boy size, and the inside of a barrel is getting the flame. All the amount of toast refers to is how much time the cooperage (the place that manufactures the barrel) spends “toasting” or fire-roasting the inside of the barrel.

Ok, so the flame might not be so intense, but imagine a fairly large fire inside of the wine barrel. That’s toasting.

Again, the winemaker might decide that a lot of toast, the inside crispiness, is what will help their wine shine. Or they might only need a little toast, a light amount of crispiness inside, knowing a minimal amount of toast is needed.  

The winemaker might be pouring for you!

While the tasting staff, or myself, might not know all of the answers to why the winery chose a new French oak barrel with medium plus amount of toast, the winemaker will. At barrel tasting, chances are high the winemaker will be there, with thief in hand (the device that pulls wine out of the barrel) to answer all of the questions above.

Aside from simply, “how does it taste,” you can get a deeper knowledge of the wine literally straight from the source, and make your barrel tasting much more exceptional.

Happy Tasting!

P.S. If you’re out wine tasting and you’ve found this information useful, we’d love it if you could tag us on twitter and/or instagram using the hashtag #beyondnapa or #beyondnapavalley. We’d appreciate it.