A few weeks ago, on what was finally a beautiful, sunny, Spring afternoon, I headed back into the Western Connecticut Highlands for the Haight-Brown Annual Spring Barrel Tasting. The sun was shining, the skies were a gorgeous deep blue, and while the trees weren’t quite yet blooming, you could see shoots of spring flowers in front of houses and along the roadsides. The temperature was also cooperating, being a very mild mid-60s, and I rolled down the windows, cranked up the IPod and enjoyed the drive as much as I did the event.
The tasting was held in the winery’s barrel-aging room, a large room on the ground level. Haight-Brown ferments only in stainless steel, and there were five large tanks in the main room, and a few others in a smaller back room. One of the first questions asked by participants, was why HB ferments in stainless steel rather than oak. The easy answer is because oak is very expensive and you can’t reuse oak barrels indefinitely, meaning you have to invest in new barrels on a fairly regular basis. But it’s more than the cost – fermenting in stainless steel allows the winemaker to better control the oak in the wine through the introduction of oak chips. It also allows the winemaker the choice of oaking or not depending on the wine and the effect he (she) is going for. As I looked around, I also realized that the stainless steel tanks are MUCH larger than oak barrels and can stand vertically, therefore they take much less storage space; something not to be sneezed at, particularly for smaller wineries.
As we settled into our seats, we were greeted by our hosts for the afternoon, Courtney and Tina. Copies of the afternoon’s tasting menu were passed out, along with large spit buckets, jugs of water, and wine crackers for cleansing our palates. On the menu for the afternoon were 11 wines: six served from the tank and five served from bottled inventory. The menu was designed to highlight comparisons between the wines from the tank and their finished product from the bottled inventory. It was a really interesting contrast…
The wines served from the tank are, obviously, young wines, and all had that “tangy bite” that you often find at the end of young wines, but in several cases I found the wines from the tank more interesting than their bottled “finished” counterparts. My favorites included:
- The first wines of the day: the Chardonnay and then the Seyval Blanc directly from the tank. Both were a pale yellow color, almost a light straw. Both were crisp and had discernible acidity. The nose on the Chardonnay was a bit sharp and somewhat tart, while the Seyval Blanc was more grassy. The Chardonnay had been oaked, the Seyval Blanc remained unoaked, and as a result there were stronger notes of fruit, primarily grapefruit, in the Seyval Blanc.
- At roughly the half-way point, we moved on to the Reds, beginning with a tasting of the Marechal Foch from the tank. Marechal Foch is generally a tarter grape and can become quite acidic in the grape, with acidity levels sometimes matching sugar levels. As a result, winemakers will often choose to pick Marechal Foch early and back-sweeten it, rather than letting it sweeten on the vine. Because of it’s tartness and acidity, Marechal Foch is often used a blending wine, rather than bottled in its own right.
A tasting of HB’s Covertside White, a Chardonnay-Seyval Blanc blend, immediately followed. The Covertside White is back-sweetened prior to the bottling process and has 1% added sugar. Tasting the wine immediately after the unsweetened direct-from-the-tank Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc was a fascinating experience. The bottled wine was a smoother wine, less acidic and the tartness is gone, eliminated by the back-sweetening and the blending of the two grapes. There are stronger fruit notes, particularly of grapefruit and melon, than are noticeable in either of the tank wines.
Anticipating a very acidic, very tart, wine, I was quite surprised with the tank sample. With strong cherry notes in the nose and mouth, the wine had an interesting depth and character that I wasn’t expecting. Yes, it was tart, but the tartness did not detract from the wine, rather it just simply felt young. Quite a few of us present mentioned that were pleasantly surprised and quite intrigued by this wine.
Courtney, our host, then went on to say that the winemaker had the same experience. This year, the winemaker decided to experiment with the Marechal Foch, leaving the skins on overnight during fermentation in an attempt to produce something similar to a light Beaujolais. They liked the result better than previous vintages and are in the process of bottling the wine under the name Nouveau Foch.
While not yet ready for sale, we were allowed to sample the Nouveau Foch from the bottle. A light bodied wine, with a lovely medium garnet color, this was one of my two favorites of the afternoon. The nose still has strong notes of cherry, but the minerality of the tank wine has been smoothed out. It’s a nice crisp wine, and not something I would ever have expected from a Marechal Foch. Courtney advised that we let this one breathe, as it really opens up the longer it’s exposed to air.
This section of the tasting concluded with samples of HB’s Picnic Red and Morning Harvest. Both wines are the same blend: 90% Marechal Foch/10% De Chaunac, but the Picnic Red is a lighter-bodied off-dry wine and the Morning Harvest a medium-bodied fully dry wine. Both are also quite different than the Nouveau Foch, providing a very interesting contrast between the four samples.
- The tasting concluded a short-time later with a sample of Muscat from the tank juxtaposed with HB’s Apricot Moon a fortified muscat dessert wine. Apricot Moon is one of my favorites among the HB inventory, and I’ve written about it at length in a previous post, so I was looking forward to finishing on such a great note. But as with the Marechal Foch, it was the Muscat that was the star of the pairing – the wine has a lovely nose of apricot, pear and some light floral notes. In the mouth, it’s soft and sweet, with notes again of both apricot and pear. The Apricot Moon, which is fortified and was served, post-mixing, directly from the tank, has stronger notes of apricot and the pear and floral notes have largely disappeared. It’s still a beautiful wine, but most of us present that day felt that HB could very easily bottle the Muscat on its own and have another excellent dessert wine.
As the tasting concluded, we were invited to take a short tour of the vineyards and finish our day in the Tasting Room where we could relax with a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres.