REALLY Tasting Wine at its Source, The Barrel

REALLY Tasting Wine at its Source, The Barrel

4 min read

One the many luxuries of having winery-owning friends is that they call you to help with a myriad of tasks, and of course, we frequently say yes! Anything from trimming vines to filtering and bottling, Winery Wanderings is there to help. This time, the call went out to help with barrel tasting. Now this is a glass I can really wrap my hands around. The invitation even included dinner following this very hard work, how could we say no?

From barrel to bottle, award winning wines

We have written about Bluebird Hill Cellars before, in fact we have written about this special place many times. Why is it so special? The people, the place, the wine, even the dogs create an atmosphere that is inviting, warm, comfortable and sophisticated.

We had the opportunity to learn about the barrel tasting process from owners, Neil and Sue Shay. Neil and Sue are the heart and soul of Bluebird Hill. Besides being the owners of the property, they are the innkeepers, the winemakers, the hosts, the tillers, the growers, the chefs and the bookkeepers.

Barrel tasting is an important step in winemaking. It can be compared to peeking in the oven when you are baking a cake. You know it’s not ready when you take a peek, but you can tell whether you’re on the right track or not. With barrel tasting, you use a tool called a wine thief (I didn’t make that up!), remove the bung (I didn’t make that up either), and siphon out some wine. At this stage, you are tasting very young wine in its second fermentation, its tannins may make your lips pucker, its flavor may be intense.

Shows a wine thief

Using a wine thief to taste wine from the barrel

When you are tasting wine from the barrel, you are looking for different things than you might look for in a typical tasting. First, is everything okay with the wine? That’s easy to tell from first sniff. Then you want to taste for balance. It’s important to look past the strong tannins and deep, intense flavor to discover the balanced, already nuanced flavors of the wine. You will naturally smell the flavors of new wood or oaky spices, but that should not be all you smell in the glass.

We started with Pinot Gris. It was harvested last September after a fairly average Oregon summer. There were several bottles of Pinot Gris. It was interesting to taste the difference among the different harvest sites and different barrels. They progressed from light and tangy to pithy citrus. All were well on their way to being lovely wines, either alone or mixed among the barrels.

Our barrel tasting guide for the day, Neil Shay

Next we went to the winery’s most awarded wine, their Chardonnay. Previous vintages have been recognized with awards ranging all the way to gold medals. I suspect the next vintage will earn the same great recognition. The samples we tried were rich with new oak, hints of pineapple and amazing combinations of aromas and tastes that guarantee another prize winning year.

At last, it was time for the Pinot Noir, the Willamette Valley’s star of the show! There were at least 16 different barrels, ranging from estate grown grapes to grapes from some of the finest vineyards in the Willamette Valley. The fun of tasting from the barrel is discovering the nuances of each wine, each barrel, each vineyard and each clone. Some barrels will be combined, others will remain as stand-alones while others may become reserve selections. Each delivered a gentle complexity that will only grow with more time in the barrel. Some were already drinkable while others will benefit from the luxury of time in oak. The oak ranged from new barrels to retoasted to neutral, each providing a distinct quality to the wine.

We finished this grueling exercises (oh, how we suffered), with Syrah. The black pepper, the tobacco, the plum notes, were already present. It was a great experience to go directly from the elegance of Pinot Noir to the robust taste of Syrah, knowing that each would continue to develop.

Neil and Sue

Neil and Sue Shay, owners of Bluebird Hill Cellars

Thanks to Sue and Neil Shay, we continue to learn about all aspects of wine and have so many opportunities to experience the process live and in person! Thank you both!

If you are interested in trying some of the Bluebird Hill wines we shared in this post or others, visit for a list of local restaurants serving wines from artisan wineries.

This post was sponsored by Bitcork