The Keys to Tasting Cabernet Wine Futures

Have you ever wondered what, exactly, are Wine Futures?

Buying Futures refers to purchasing wine that is still maturing in barrel. In France, this more than 200-year old practice is known as en primeur, which literally translates to, as being new.

In California, offering Wine Futures is a relatively recent development, and in Napa Valley, it is Cabernet Futures on which most winemakers set their sights. At Nickel & Nickel, our Cabernet Futures Program is all about 100%-varietal, single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from some of the Napa Valley’s most exciting regions: from Yountville and the Stags Leap District to Oakville, Rutherford, Diamond Mountain and more. And, each year, we invite our wine club members and past Futures buyers to come out and be the first to taste the newest vintage, straight out of barrel.

Barrel tastings offer individuals a unique opportunity to glimpse a wine in its earliest stages of maturation, however, we’re often asked what, exactly, should you look for during a Napa Valley Cabernet barrel tasting? And how do you know if the still developing wine will be any good? During our own Cabernet Futures event, which takes place every spring, our winemaker always offers one essential tasting tip: Give your wine a lot of air. “You can really open up a young barrel selection just by giving it some extended time in your glass and a good, strong swirl.”

Then asks two key questions:

  1. Do you like the fruit flavors? We often say that tasting wines at this stage is tasting the raw material. The wines will continue to mature in barrel, where they’ll develop more subtle nuances and aromatics, and qualities like astringency will be fine-tuned over time. The fruit, however, is already there. Even at this early stage, you can detect whether a wine shows pops of red fruit or leans more toward dark, black berry characteristics; whether the fruit is rich and juicy or more dark and earthy. If anything, the fruit is over-pronounced, and the more subtle, nuanced notes will become more defined as the fruit expressions integrate with age.
  2. Do you like the weight and structure of the wine? Most likely, you already know whether you prefer a Cabernet that’s full and round or tend to reach for something with a lighter palate weight; whether you like the big, gripping tannins of a mountain wine or lean toward valley floor wines with soft, velvet textures. Although oak will contribute to flavor and body as a wine continues its barrel development, the wine’s structural foundation should be readily detectable, even in barrel.

When we host our annual barrel tastings at Nickel & Nickel, we’re tasting more than a dozen lots side by side. Each of these selections represents a single vineyard wine from a distinct Napa Valley appellation. Because most of those lots were harvested on different days, had different rates of fermentation, and went into barrels at different times, each one is at its own unique stage of development.

Clearly, there are lot of variables to consider, and it’s easy to overthink them! And, too, we all perceive wines differently. No two palates are alike! Which is why, the real key to tasting wines in barrel is to come with an advance knowledge of what you like. We encourage our guests at each barrel tasting is to  to trust their palate, which can take time and practice.

Having a personal history with a particular vineyard(s) can definitely be an advantage. Although no two vintages are alike, there are definitive qualities that make the Quarry Vineyard the Quarry Vineyard, or that make Beatty Ranch taste like Beatty Ranch. Tasting barrel selections side-by-side can give you a real sense of the quality of a particular vintage, while also highlighting the consistent expressions of a specific site.”

Of course, when it comes to buying Futures, you won’t always have a past history with a wine or vineyard to give you that proverbial “leg up.” And, you may not always have the chance to taste a barrel selection in advance. That’s when it pays to do some research and get to know those wineries that are consistently recognized for working with great sites, for being hands-on stewards of their fruit, and for taking thoughtful, necessary steps to ensure that every wine is the best they could possibly make in a given year.

The opportunity to taste a Napa Valley Cabernet while still in barrel, to predict what it will become and be the first to lay claim to a potentially limited bottling is an experience unlike any other. If you’d like to learn more about our Cabernet Futures Program, we invite you to explore our website.