A Lesson in Barrel Tasting with Moshin Vineyards

Sonoma County is home to 17 appellations, all of which possess unique terroir and grow a wide range of grape varieties. In Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir is king and Chardonnay the queen. Winemaker Rick Moshin, of the eponymous Moshin Vineyards, knows a thing or two about Russian River Valley and those terroir-driven Burgundian varietals that grow so well in the appellation.

On a beautiful winter day, during a lucky break from the intense rain and flooding California has been getting, I met up with Rick Moshin to discuss the 2016 vintage and the development of his wines in barrel.

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Why Barrel Tasting?
While barrel tasting is an activity that wine lovers only do on occasion, it’s actually a very frequent activity for winemakers. Once grapes have finished fermenting and are transferred into barrels for aging, winemakers have to track the development of their wines by tasting samples directly from the barrel. With each passing day, week, month and so on, the aromas and flavors develop, and the texture, body and tannins—imparted both by the grape skins during fermentation and by barrel aging—also take shape.

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When barrel tasting, there’s a few things to keep in mind to help make your experience more fun and educational:

Barrel-Tasting Tips

  1. Ask questions about the growing season. Knowing if it was warm or cold/sunny or foggy will provide insight as to whether the wine might be fruit-forward or more herbaceous, richer or lighter in body and alcohol, etc.
  2. Ask how long the wine has been aging in barrel. This can give you an indication of how “ready” the wine should be when you taste it. If the wine has been in barrel for a short amount of time, it will be less developed and possess harsh acidities; if the wine has been in barrel for almost its entire length of aging, it will be more developed and enjoyable.
  3. Focus on the way the flavors and textures combine in your mouth; envision how they will blend more seamlessly together with further barrel aging. Keep in mind that as wine ages in barrel, acidities soften, fruit flavors develop and barrel-influenced characteristics like spices begin to show themselves. The wine is always working towards a more harmonious whole.
  4. Remember that once the wine is bottled, it will continue to develop even more, which is why barrel tasting is a great way to catch a glimpse of how a wine will age and taste in the future.

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Rick says, “When tasting young wine in barrel, be prepared to taste the raw components like acidity, slight carbonation from trapped gasses and maybe some funk left over from the malolactic fermentation. What I tell people is to think about the core flavors and if you like them, then the wine will be better once bottled."

He showed me a lineup of his wines in barrel, including some lovely 2016 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, while we discussed the ins and outs of barrel tasting. A single-vineyard wine is just that—it is made solely from grapes that are grown in one vineyard and it is more often than not a very unique expression of its terroir. Rick said that “the 2016 crop was a fairly normal year” and that the wines show “really good length.” He continued, “We’re lucky, because in the last five years, Russian River Valley has been rockin’.”

The 2016 Calliope Vineyard Pinot Noir from barrel shows rich black cherry fruit with a very structured and acidic backbone; it was very balanced given its stage of development. Another balanced beauty, the 2016 Rosalina Vineyard Pinot Noir barrel sample boasts bright, fresh aromas and flavors of cranberry, black raspberry and black cherry cola; again, as a barrel sample it shows a lot of acid, but tasting through that, one can sense the energy and balance this wine will have once bottled and released.

Tasting the current release of the 2013 Rosalina Vineyard Pinot Noir, I was impressed both by the bottle-age development and by how little the wine had budged—showing that evolution for these wines is slow, making them very cellar-worthy. The 2013 Rosalina Vineyard Pinot Noir shows similarly to its 2016 barrel sample counterpart, with a blackberry fruit-laced palate and lots of juicy freshness. Its bottle age allows for more earth and herbal qualities, with a subtle hint of barrel toast and spices, and you can sense that the wine is going to continue down a very balanced and harmonious path.


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