Due to various reasons, tasting barrel samples of wine is usually rarer than tasting barrel samples of spirits, e.g. brandy and whisky. For starters, brandy and whisky can theoretically age in barrels and keep benefitting from the process for longer periods, but the same cannot be said generally about wine, except perhaps fortified wines such as Marsala, Madeira, Port and Sherry.
Barrel samples of wine are, in essence, unfinished wines, and tasting them is akin to putting oneself in the shoes of the winemaker. Younger barrel samples allow tasters to examine the primary notes of the wine, indeed its inherent nature, before the emergence of secondary and tertiary notes. Ripeness in terms of acidity, phenolics and tannins should give a good indication of the quality of the final product. Older barrel samples, meanwhile, allow tasters to inspect the quality of oak and the maturation process. In both cases, the unfinished wine is arguably in its most pristine state, when potential defects are not masked.
Barrel samples are typically fruitier but more tannic than the final product. Depending on the exact varieties, terroirs and winemaking techniques, some might even be more appealing to drink than the final product, as delectable as fruit juice. This is not to say that the wine would better be bottled and marketed right then, as oak maturation is a crucial step in enhancing the cellaring ability of a wine; as attractive as a youthful wine can be, without proper oak maturation, its cellaring ability would more often than not be limited.
Another reason why barrel samples can sometimes taste better than the final product is sheer chance and luck. It is increasingly common for quality-driven producers to harvest and vinify their grapes by plots, which magnifies the minute differences of the various mini-terroirs in a single vineyard. These “intra-vineyard” or “inter-plot” differences would most likely be evened out in the final blending process. The fact to the matter is, unless the winemaker’s holding is so small that it can fill but a single barrel, even a single-vineyard wine from Burgundy or Germany is a blend of most if not all barrels.
Barrel samples are by no means determinative of the final product, but indicative of it. The focus is not so much on how a certain sample tastes on a particular day as the key elements of the wine, e.g. acidity, body, flavours and tannins etc.
The following barrel samples were tasted at a guided tasting hosted by Cheval des Andes during Vinexpo 2018. Part of LVMH, the 50ha Cheval des Andes is the union of Château Cheval Blanc and Terrazas de los Andes, aiming to merge Old World experience and heritage with New World creativity and vitality. Co-managed by Lorenzo Pasquini, Pierre Lurton and Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the estate’s eponymous grand vin makes use of five red varieties, namely Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Cheval des Andes Malbec 2017 (Barrel Sample I – West Strip)
Reddish black with burgundy-purple rim, the crunchy nose offers blackberry, cassis, nutmeg and toasted oak. With energetic acidity and fresh tannins, the elegant palate delivers black cherry, mulberry, allspice and ground coffee. Medium-full bodied, the poised entry carries onto a spicy mid-palate, leading to a clean finish.
Cheval des Andes Malbec 2017 (Barrel Sample II – East Strip)
Reddish black with carmine-purple rim, the brooding nose reveals blackberry, cassis, crushed rock and violet. With rich acidity and ripe tannins, the guarded palate unveils damson, mulberry, black pepper and caffè ristretto. Full-bodied, the dense entry continues through a profound mid-palate, leading to a structured finish.
Cheval des Andes Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (Barrel Sample)
Reddish black with carmine-garnet rim, the aromatic nose effuses damson, mulberry, cocoa and sous bois. With bright acidity and abundant tannins, the balanced palate emanates blackberry, black cherry, blackcurrant leaf and green peppers. Medium-full bodied, the composed entry evolves into a vivacious mid-palate, leading to an uplifting finish.
Cheval des Andes Petit Verdot 2017 (Barrel Sample)
Reddish black with garnet-purple rim, the potent nose presents boysenberry, mulberry, nutmeg and coffee. With generous acidity and chewy tannins, the robust palate furnishes cassis, wild cherry, clove and graphite. Full-bodied, the broad entry persists through a rounded mid-palate, leading to an unwavering finish. Jacky I.F. Cheong
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages