Bourbon barrel-aged wines have become one of the fastest-growing wine categories. That’s right, the wine is aged in barrels once used to age whiskey. I guess if brewers can do it — check out Avery Brewing’s “Sandy Claws” and Oskar Blues Brewery’s Ten FIDY Imperial Stout — and if whiskey makers can use wine barrels, then turnabout is fair play.
While I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to winemaking, and some critics think these wines are a stunt for the U.S. millennial market, they have found a market. And I did find the wines below appealing.
Whether crafted with the whiskey drinker in mind or the adventurous drinker looking for a novel experience, the winemakers say the bourbon characteristics and charred barrels add layers to the flavor profile, enhancing complexity. Certainly, I would characterize the wines overall as bold, ripe tasting and smoky, reflecting the char of the whiskey barrels.
Bob Blue, a pioneer in organic winemaking as founding winemaker for Bonterra Vineyards, has fashioned my favorite of the group. He started experimenting with bourbon barrels in the 1980s and may have created the original California bourbon barrel-aged wine. Today, Blue makes three bourbon barrel-aged wines under the 1000 Stories label — a carignan (which I have favorably reviewed, the 2016 Batch Blue, $19), a red blend and 2016 Zinfandel Batch 41 ($19). With 15.7 percent alcohol, this hearty zin delivers dark fruit, licorice, spice and black pepper with soft tannins.
The 2016 Cooper & Thief Cellarmaster Select Red Wine Blend ($30) — syrah, merlot, zinfandel, petite sirah and malbec — definitely reveals its whiskey influence with 17 percent alcohol and assertive, deep flavors, but it still drinks with a velvety texture. If you like this style, Cooper & Thief also makes a tequila barrel-aged sauvignon blanc (2016, $30) and a rye-aged cabernet (2015, $49).
The large, family-owned O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, with vineyards throughout central California, offers the 2016 Exitus Red Wine ($26) — zinfandel, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and merlot — at 15.9 percent. Its very fresh fruit borders on sweetness, with concentrated blackberry and blueberry and noticeable smoky aromas.
Stave & Steel, one of the many brands of The Wine Group (one of the world’s largest wine companies), offers a 2016 cabernet sauvignon ($20). With 13.5 percent alcohol, the Paso Robles fruit achieves better balance but still adds bold, fresh black raspberry, a lively structure and hints of spice.
Finally, the trend has spread beyond California. I recently tasted two wines from the Australian winery Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel line of wines. Both of these wines (each $15) are first aged in wine barrels and then finished in Irish whiskey barrels — hence the “double barrel” moniker. The shiraz (14.8 percent alcohol) is full but fresh, with juicy red fruits and licorice notes. The cabernet sauvignon (14.3 percent alcohol) seems more intense with plum and currant, tobacco and more licorice finishing with noticeable tannins.
One final note: The packaging of these bottles also is notable. It seems they are designed to appeal to those same spirit-drinking, adventurous consumers, as they often mimic the look of bourbon bottles.