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Winemakers Are Redefining Tradition

About the time you think you finally grasp how wine is being made, someone nudges aside a tradition to redefine tradition. In the 1970s, Italian wine producers blended indigenous grapes with French varietals. Then, wine guru Dave Phinney blended grapes across an entire country. Heresy! Other producers oxidized wines or made them orange. Whaaat? Then, someone made their wines blue. Is this the new world of wine?

Wine-making conventions are being destroyed. So maybe it isn't revolutionary that several California producers are making wines in bourbon barrels -- and whiskey barrels and tequila barrels. Are coffee pots next? Oh, wait, that's been done too -- Gallo adds coffee to their Apothic Brew -- do you drink it with your cereal?

Oak aging wine is not new, but charring a bourbon or whiskey barrel takes oak to another level. Many winemakers are using old bourbon barrels and charring them, which means they literally light a fire inside of the barrel. Others are less aggressive and just toast the inside of a new or old barrel. Either way, the winemakers believe a bourbon barrel adds something new.

The first to try bourbon barrels was Bob Blue of Fetzer, who released his first 1000 Stories Zinfandel in 2014. It sold well and other producers followed – Rutherford Wine Company, Stave & Steel, Robert Mondavi, and Apothic.

What's the advantage of bourbon barrels? The cost of a bourbon barrel is significantly less than a $1,200 French oak barrel, for one thing. More than price, a plain-old French oak barrel provides caramel, vanilla and spice to the flavor profile, but bourbon barrels can add maple, marsh mellow and even whisky lactone. Some winemakers also think that bourbon barrels add a rounder texture to red wine.

Generally, wine is put in bourbon barrels for only a few months to limit the vanilla and caramel flavors. Any exposure longer than that creates a Frankenstein wine.

After tasting a handful of bourbon-barrel wines, we would be hard pressed to pick them out among wines aged in traditional oak barrels. Zinfandel, in particular, is more influenced by the ripeness of the grapes, its alcohol content, residual sugar, and soil. Perhaps the popularity of bourbon-barrel-aged wines is due to good marketing, especially among male bourbon drinkers.

"Our zinfandel has a more intense structure and is more fruit-driven than other wines aged in bourbon barrels," says Jay Turnipseed (pictured right), winemaker for Rutherford Wine Company's Four Virtues zinfandel. He uses new bourbon barrels for a few months and only for about 40 percent of the wine. By toasting and not charring the barrels, he limits the marsh mellow and whisky lactone flavors.

Here are some of wines aged in bourbon and tequila barrels that we have tasted:

  • Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel 2016 ($17). From Lodi, this smooth zinfandel is aged in French oak and finished in aggressively toasted new bourbon barrels. The oak adds a lot of caramel and vanilla notes to ripe raspberry and blackberry flavors. About 2 percent California port is blended in the wine to add some sweetness and raisin quality. Winemaker Jay Turnipseed feels the use of new bourbon barrels gives him more control of the wood's influences.

  • Stave & Steel Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($21). Using old bourbon barrels that have been toasted, charred and soaked in Kentucky bourbon for four months, this unique cabernet has a heavy dose of vanilla and spicy oak character but is backed by complex Central Coast fruit. Cherry and plum flavors abound.

  • 1000 Stories Batch 41 Zinfandel 2016 ($19). Using grapes from Mendocino, Lodi and Lake County, Fetzer winemaker Bob Blue ages the wine in traditional American and French oak barrels before introducing new bourbon barrels. We picked up a tinge of smoke in the aroma and the classic vanilla and caramel flavors from the oak. Otherwise, the zinfandel is loaded with jammy plum and blackberry fruit and is spiked with spice, black pepper, and dried sage.

  • Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters Sauvignon Blanc ($30). Aged for three months in former tequila barrels, this wine shocks the palate because it is so unique. You will either love it or hate it. There is a heavy dose of vanilla to complement orange, tangerine, and melon notes. It is exceedingly rich in texture, due in part to the barrels but also to the French colombard and semillon grapes that are in the blend.

  • Apothic Inferno 2015 ($17). Aged in charred white oak whisky barrels for two months, this is a blend of grapes that, classic to the brand, is sweet with oak-inspired flavors of maple, caramel, and spice.

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