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Judging Infant Wines

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 30, 2006 12:38pm ET

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?

La Quinta, CA —  May 30, 2006 7:27pm ET
I agree, James. Pinot is very tough to taste out of barrel. I have done it several times, and you just don't know what kind of quality your going to get. I have been blown away by a wine out of barrel, only to be disappointed when in bottle, and vice versa. Especially Oregon Pinot's with all that baby fat!
Andrew Compton
Anchorage, —  June 1, 2006 2:45am ET
With barrel tasting you are tasting an unblended product. What weight do you place on the winemakers reputation? Obviously a winemaker like Bo Barret or Jean-Pierre Moueix will create a better final product than a new winemaker. Does this factor into barrel tasting scores?
Lee Stipp
San Anselmo, CA —  June 1, 2006 11:08am ET
In response to Mr. Compton:In many cases wines are blended and re-barreled so they can gain some sort of personality as a blend and then bottled.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 1, 2006 11:46am ET
Andrew, since the tastings are blind I can't/don't consider the winemaker's reputation. I'm rating the wine, not the winery's or winemaker's reputation. True, the best winemakers can (and do) make adjustments to their wines. Others, however, are often more stubborn and stick to their guns and don't make adjustments that might render a superior wine.

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