Tastes Like Oak: Red Tail Ridge Winery Barrel Tasting

Have you ever wondered how winemakers determine whether a wine is ready to be released to the public? Unoaked white wines tend to be released the year after they are grown, for example the 2016 white wines are primarily being released over this summer. Reds on the other hand show a little more variation. Some wineries release reds like whites, a year after they are picked and fermented, others wait much longer. This year in the Finger Lakes, I’ve been seeing reds released from 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, and even a 2010. What makes the wine ready for release? How do they know to wait another week, month, year, or even five years?

In some ways it is dictated by the economy- the wine might need another year in the bottle or barrel, but winemakers also need to make money to support the next year’s vintage so they may release it with a suggestion that the buyer age it themselves. But in many ways it is dictated by taste- has the wine reached the flavors, body, tannin, structure, nose that the winemaker was hoping to get?

This is where doing a barrel tasting comes in. Sometimes, wineries open up their barrel room to the public (or to their wine club members) and invite them to try what the winemaker is and learn first hand what they are tasting.

Red Tail Ridge Barrel Tasting

Red Tail Ridge Winery, located on Seneca Lake, hosted a barrel tasting for their Nest Club and guests, that featured six wines straight from the barrel compared with the current vintage that is available for purchase in the winery. It shows where the wine came from, and what it possibly may become one day. It’s also a great sneak peek at what the new developments in the winery are, and whether things are changing!

We entered into the winery itself, not the tasting room, so immediately we got a sense of Nancy Irelan’s winemaking process. It is by far one of the cleanest and most organized wineries I’ve ever seen. We each received a glass and a clipboard with paper and pencil to write tasting notes- you know its a serious tasting when you get a clipboard!

For each of the wines, Nancy would tell us about the vintage that was currently in the barrel, what type of barrel it was, how long it had been in there, and other decisions relating to the winemaking process. Then, manager Danielle would pour the current vintage available for sale as a comparison, sharing some of the differences such as barrel type or aging.

Comparing Old and New Vintages

Chardonnay: We began by tasting two different 2016 Chardonnays from the barrel, the first aged in neutral French oak which created a nose of bright apple and tropical fruit with a zingy acidity and notes of apple and pear on the palate, whereas the second was aged in new Hungarian oak that gave the wine an intense spiciness and vanilla nose that was silkier on the palate with notes of cooked pear. When bottled, these two will be blended together, as they were for the 2015 Chardonnay that we sampled from the bottle- a wine that shows the best of both barrels, with spice, apple and pear, and a nice balanced acidity.

Pinot Noir: The 2016 Pinot Noir straight from the barrel was a clear purple-red color, and had clear notes of smoke, cherry, and cedar that continued on the palate with a medium-light body and nice acidity. It had a surprisingly low tannin and lingering notes of sour cherry and raspberry. We compared this with the 2015 Pinot Noir, slightly different because it is a blend of five clones of Pinot Noir whereas the newer one is only a single clone. The 2015 was darker in color, more fruit forward with cherry and cranberry, and only hints of the smoke and wood, and finished out with a medium tannin and bright cherry on the palate.

Before we move on, I’ll mention that one of the fun things about Red Tail Ridge is that they are trying out different grapes than other wineries, which makes for a very interesting tasting!

Dornfelder: Bred for its color, a deep fuchsia-purple with intense red-purple center, the 2016 Dornfelder was quite pungent with notes of earth, blackberry, herbs like rosemary, and spice. Despite its intense color, on the palate it is light with notes of berries, a high acidity, medium tannin and lingering cherry. (Fun fact from Danielle, if you add Dornfelder to water, it can turn blue depending on the water’s pH level!). We tasted the 2015 Dornfelder next, which had a little less of the spice and herbs of the 2016, more tannin and body, but similar notes of black berries.

Blaufrankisch: Also known as Lemberger, the 2016 Blaufrankisch is special because it is their first estate grown vintage- previous years were a blend of the grapes grown at Red Tail Ridge and the Martini Vineyards located in the area. The 2016 had notes of black berries and cherry, with lingering spice, medium high acidity, a medium body, and lingering chewy tannin. The 2014 Blaufrankisch was immediately different in color, more brick red than the purple red 2016, and was more fruit forward, softer mouthfeel, lighter bodied, and had a nice lingering cherry.

Teroldego: This is a unique varietal that almost went extinct, but was saved by Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori. The 2016 Teroldego is an intense purple-red color with a nose of raspberry, blueberry and an herbaceous finish. When sipped it has a lot of tannin, lower acidity, and finishes with blueberry and pepper. It was compared with the 2014 Teroldego, which was not as bright purple, had earthier funk to the nose, and a mix of berries. It still had a nice big chewy tannin, medium acitity, and a fantastic lingering spice.

Lagrein: We ended with the 2016 Lagrein, a new wine to the vineyard so there was no comparison vintage. The wine was an intense fuchsia purple with spicy funk and various black berries. It had a soft body but grippy intense tannin and berry notes on the palate. This wine is likely to appear at the winery as part of a blend rather than on its own.

Final Tasting Notes

This was a long one, so I’ll just leave it with this: drink more local wine, and try out some of the fabulous events that give you the chance to try new wines and meet amazing people.

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