I am always interested in widening my experience of all things vinous so when asked if I would like to do a barrel tasting whilst in Bordeaux, I jumped at the chance. Barrel tasting involves sampling the one year old wine taken directly from the barrels they are aging in and gives a fantastic insight into the impact of the choice of barrel on the finished wine.
High quality claret is aged in oak barriques which hold 225 litres, 300 bottles, of wine. Due to the relatively low volume in each barrel and the relative high surface area of wine in contact with the barrel it can have a significant effect on both the taste and the structure of the wine. However in winemaking nothing is simple; the type of barrel can significantly impact the final outcome. Such variables as:
Where did the oak come from for the barrel? Various regions in France, California, Slovenia and nowadays Russia are the most common. Which cooper have you used? Each cooper seems to impart their own style.
What level of toasting has been undertaken? The barrel is charred on the inside to different degrees importing different flavours.
To the tasting. We sampled 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which had been kept in barrels made by renowned barrel makers from the Bordeaux area, Burgundy, Russia and Slovenia. We also had samples from the Russian cooperage of oak from the Vosges in France. Each style of barrel gave something different to the wine. My least favourite was the Russian oak which seemed to dominate the wine importing harsh tannins and spice flavours. The Burgundian oak had a very delicate impact accentuating the fruit in the wine and delivering a creamy undertone. My favourite however was the French oak from the Russian cooperage which seemed to add gentle tannins and spice whilst elevating the fruit. This also pleased the winemaker as it is a significantly cheaper source of barrels than from the French counterparts.
Of course the true skill of the winemaker will be to blend the wines from all of the barrels to create a single distinctive wine which can age well, is complex but tastes great now. And I thought I had a great job!