Visit A Winery For A Barrel Tasting Event

An exciting and fun learning experience is a barrel tasting. Some wineries offer different types of tours that include tasting from barrels. Others offer barrel tastings to their club members at certain times during the year. Check the wineries where you will be visiting to see if they offer tours that may include barrel tasting. If you are a club member, see if barrel tasting is one of the benefits of membership.

Most likely, when you taste a wine from a barrel it is not ready for release. Barrel tasting provides the opportunity to taste a wine that may be months or years away from bottling and sales. Although the wine may taste good, try to determine what additional aging may do for it. Is the wine balanced or is the alcohol, acidity, oakiness, or fruit predominant?

In April of 2007, we had the opportunity to attend a barrel tasting at Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery in Leon, Virginia. Brad Hansen, the winemaker, led 40 people down a flight of stairs from the spacious tasting room. We entered a large rectangular shaped, barrel aging room with a curved ceiling. Small overhead lights provided subdued lighting. Barrels lined the walls of this room except for two alcoves that had beautiful murals painted depicting scenes from the old world wine country.

In the center of the room a long, wood table was set with wine glasses, cheeses, olives, crackers and water. Brad welcomed everyone and indicated that this barrel tasting was in appreciation of the wine club members. He chose four wines to show us a “picture of what’s going on in production.”

Brad began the tasting with the history of Prince Michel vineyards. He discussed the challenge of the vineyards on the land next to the winery and the direction the new owners have taken. Sixty percent of the Chardonnay crop around the winery was lost due to 16° – 19° weather in mid April. The previous weather was warm and the buds began to swell and leaves began to pop out when they were hit by the very cold weather. The buds turned brown and dropped off. Brad explained that the difficulty in this area of Virginia is that cold air rolls down the mountains and settles right over this area. So Chardonnay vines planted just minutes away are fine. Fortunately, Prince Michel owns or has partnership vineyards throughout the Virginia Commonwealth. They acquire most of the Chardonnay from a vineyard on the Eastern shore. The influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay keep the land on the Eastern shore warmer. The recent sub-freezing temperatures around the winery did not affect the Chardonnay grapes on the Eastern Shore area. By having partnership vineyards throughout Virginia the “risk is spread around.”

The first wine Brad offered the group was Petit Manseng. This is a new grape planted for Prince Michel and Brad is very pleased with the first release that will be for sale in just a few weeks. Brad produces this wine in a dry French style. The Petit Manseng grape can produce very high sugar levels and make a very sweet wine. Brad harvests this grape early while the sugar levels are low. We enjoyed this wine. Although dry, it seemed sweet and had a very nice bouquet and a good balance between the citrus fruit flavors, acid and alcohol.

The next wine we tasted was a barrel selected 2006 Chardonnay. This wine will see another eighteen months in the barrel before release. It was out of balance at this point, with too much oak flavor. Brad explained that over the next eighteen months, the dead yeast cells will give the wine flavors and the fruit flavors will become more intense and balance out.

We then tasted a barrel aged Syrah done in the French style. This was a very light Syrah and Brad is thinking of blending it with about five percent Merlot. It will see several more months in the barrel before release in the fall of this year. The final wine tasted was a Cabernet Sauvignon that has a summer release date. Brad explained that he would like to use this wine in a blend of Prince Michel’s Symbius, a Bordeaux style blend.

During the tasting, most people drank the wine and only a few people dumped their wine in the dump buckets. While waiting for a serving of the wine, people frequently visited the table for the cheese, olives, crackers or water. After we tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon, Brad asked the group for questions. There were several questions. Do grape growers know what areas of Virginia grow the best varietals? What characteristics do you look for when blending Symbius? Brad explained that Virginia is new to wine and they are still discovering what areas grow the best varietals as well as experimenting with varietals that may do well in the various climates of the state. He talked about the success of the Viognier grape throughout the state. Brad believes that the Petit Manseng will also be successful. Brad pointed out that the wineries throughout the state produce similar wines. However, they seek their wines to be similar with a difference. “If our wine tastes the same as others, why come here?” Many produce a Bordeaux style blend. However, each of these blends is different. He will blind taste different wines until he comes up with what will make a blend for Prince Michele’s Symbius.

Be sure to check out your favorite wineries or wineries you have not visited yet, and see what type of barrel tastings they have to offer.