Which wines are the most difficult to evaluate in their infancy -- in barrel or bottle?
For me, there are several contenders.
Syrah can be devilish out of barrel because of its intensity. Big, rich, hearty and loaded with a beef stew of flavors. White pepper, wild berry, herb, sage, tobacco, mineral and beef carpaccio. Occasionally a tomato stew character emerges. Plenty of acidity and tannin, too, combine to make it a potent mouthful.
Ditto for baby Grenache.
Once bottled, Syrah-based wines tend to need and benefit most from aeration. Tasting them change and evolve is the epitome of complexity and nuance.
Pinot Noir is often a chameleon. Known as a finicky grape and wine, it undergoes both subtle and dramatic changes in barrel and once in bottle. Winemakers often freak out at how unpredictable their bambino Pinots taste from day to day, week to week and month to month. One day it can be fresh and fruity. The next day, funky and disjointed. Pinot producers can chime in on this phenomenon.
Zinfandel grapes can be both ripe and green on the same vine, a function of the variety's cluster size and berry size. It’s not unusual for a Zinfandel cluster to have all of the following: big, plump berries, raisiny berries and green, underripe berries. When the ripe grapes get too ripe, alcohol levels in the wine rise, and any underdeveloped grapes are acidic. The combination of acidity, alcohol and tannins can make it punishing to taste. Try attending a barrel tasting hosted by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) if you need to put this to a test.
But the Nebbiolo grape, from which Barolo and Barbaresco are made, is, for me, the toughest to taste when young.
The main factors that make these, and other wines, challenging have to do with levels of acidity, tannin and alcohol. Barolo and Barbaresco are typically high in acidity and they have firm tannins. They also change dramatically in their youth. As the wines mature, they can take on a more delicate character, making them almost Burgundian in their aroma and texture.
Tasting young wines out of barrel provides critics and professionals with real challenges. With time, experience and practice will help you look for the telltale signs of a great wine or one that's missing something. It also helps you appreciate how the wines evolve and taste once their rough edges have softened. If wines didn't change, then they wouldn't be so fascinating.
Which wines do you find the most beguiling to taste, young or old?