At barrel tastings in Long Island’s wine country, you can forget that old adage about drinking “no wine before its time.”
The idea behind these early-bird events is to sample the fruit of the vine long before it’s bottled, while it’s still undergoing the aging process.
In addition to tasting lots of “unfinished” wine at these traditional winter events held in North Fork wine cellars, you also learn all about the process of winemaking from the folks behind those delicious bottles of red, white and rosé.
“You really get a glimpse of what it takes to make great wines,” says Pindar Damianos, an owner and vineyard manager of Pindar Vineyards in Peconic. At Pindar barrel tastings, visitors gather in the tasting room, then head over to the cellar where 2014 and 2015 vintages are aging in 3,000 American and French oak barrels.
“They should be phenomenal because they were great vintages,” Damianos says.
Winemakers say they enjoy leading barrel tasting tours.
“If you are a winemaker and you really love your wines, you like to tell people about it,” says Eric Fry, the winemaker for The Lenz Winery in Peconic.
On Lenz tours, Fry, who has been making wine for 40 years and learned viticulture in California’s Napa Valley, takes guests into the working winery’s cellar.
Fry explains the winemaking process of about 30 different wines. “I try to explain where it came from and where it’s going,” he says. He’s also high on audience participation, quizzing guests as they sip.
“I want them to tell me what they taste,” Fry says.
Fry “asks you what you experience, on the nose, on the palate. He allows everyone on the tour to explore his wines through their own personal senses,” says Pamela Millen of Laurel, who is in her 60s and has gone to barrel tastings on Long Island and in France.
Millen says barrel tastings have taught her to appreciate the process that puts wine in the bottle — even the bitter-tasting tannins in aging red wine, which she says “made your mouth pucker like sucking on a tea bag.”
Barrel tastings can also be festive affairs. Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck offers guests tastings of eight to 10 wines, including 2015 barrel samples (generally reds), 2016 tank samples (usually whites) and a few bottled wines. Shinn also sets out a spread of bread, cheese, olives, salad, charcuterie and steaming pots of winter stew. A case of future wines can be bought at a discount.
However, education is key at all these events.
“There’s always something new to learn,” says Jonathan B. Cogswell, 61, a customer service consultant who owns a summer home in Cutchogue. He attended a pinot noir barrel tasting in November at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue and plans to return for a Lenz tasting this winter.
Says Cogswell: A barrel tasting “makes you appreciate the wine more and, not to sound like a wine snob, but it gets you very much in touch with the notion of terroir, that [wines] take on the flavor of their surroundings.”