When a winemaker invites you into the cellar and draws a sample from a barrel for you, that’s called a barrel tasting. It’s an honor, an illicit thrill and great marketing. You are being invited to steal a taste of an unfinished wine — the glass pipette he or she uses is called a “thief” — in hopes you will forge a connection to the winemaker and winery, and purchase (or write about) that wine when it is released to the market.
I recently enjoyed a barrel tasting with a different purpose: to assess the effect of different barrels on a wine. It was a wonky, geeky exercise; the type of afternoon only the most obsessed oenophiliacs would get excited about. It also opened a window into how winemakers hone their craft, trying year after year to make better wine by better understanding the vintages that came before.
My hosts were Joshua Grainer and Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards, in Delaplane, Va. I first wrote about them six years ago when they released their debut wines, setting a high bar for Virginia in terms of both quality and price. Their wines have evolved beautifully and improved vintage by vintage; this barrel trial was another example of how they are always trying to improve their craft.
RdV uses Bordeaux-style barrels, which hold about 225 liters, or 25 cases of wine. French oak, of course, which is the gold standard for its tight grain (limiting oxygen) and superior flavor. The vineyard buys about 80 new barrels a year, at an average price of nearly $1,300 per barrel. That adds about $4.33 to the cost of making each bottle — a cost that gets magnified as it ricochets through the distribution system to the consumer. RdV uses about 120 barrels each vintage for its three Bordeaux-style red wines, so two-thirds is aged in new oak. Most of that new oak is used on wine that goes into Lost Mountain, the winery’s premier blend. Its other two wines, Rendezvous and Friends & Family, receive less influence from new barrels.
Last year at about this time, de Vink and Grainer took samples of their 2015 wines to France to meet with several barrel makers. They asked each of them to craft several barrels with a range of flavor variables to be used on their 2016 wines. I was invited to an early assessment of the results.
We tasted five glasses of cabernet sauvignon from a premier area in RdV’s vineyards. Wines from this block have consistently formed the base of Lost Mountain, where the various wines are blended by Eric Boissenot, RdV’s winemaking consultant. The wine in each glass was the same, but each was aged for six months in barrels from each of the coopers.
Why have such a variety?
“It’s like a spice box,” Grainer said. “You might really love turmeric, but when you taste a dish, you realize coriander adds a different dimension. Each of these barrels adds something different to the wine.”
“When you start making wine, the first thing people tell you is, ‘Don’t buy barrels from other wineries, because you don’t know how they’ve been handled,’ ” de Vink said. “The second truth about barrels is to buy a variety. A barrel maker has a signature, but you don’t want that signature on your wine — you want your own. So it’s better to have a mix of barrels.”
And while RdV makes Bordeaux-style wines, it does not make Bordeaux. “In Bordeaux, they want barrels that will give the wines fatness and body,” de Vink said. “We have that fatness, and we want barrels that will impose some focus on the wines.”
The cabernet aged just six months in oak from Taransaud, Saint Martin and Sylvain cooperages displayed spicy notes, plus some classic Bordeaux character called “pencil shavings.” Barrels from Ermitage and Vicard cooperages emphasized the wine’s inherent sappy ripeness. I could easily see how these could accentuate the wine’s strengths, while other barrels added complexity.
Grainer and de Vink expressed a preference for wines aged in barrels from Taransaud, a traditional cooper that uses open flames to toast and bend the barrel staves. But they were clearly fascinated by Vicard, a modern, high-tech operation (with an outpost in Napa catering to California wineries) that controls the heat and toast applied to the wood.
The 2016 Lost Mountain will be blended next month, and the wine will spend 18 more months in barrel. Before the various barrels are blended in a vat to be bottled, Grainer and de Vink will taste the wines again to see how the different barrels influenced the blend over time.
I hope they invite me back.