Aging in oak has long been a fundamental part of the world of wine and spirits. Oak barrels have even created an opportunity for experimentation across beverages, as brewers and distillers age their elixirs in barrels once used for wine.
Today, winemakers are reversing this technique, aging their wines in bourbon barrels.
The toasting process
In winemaking, barrels add certain flavors to the wine and soften tannins by enabling tiny amounts of oxygen to enter.
Traditional oak wine barrels are often toasted. Think of it as a marshmallow held over an open flame: As it toasts, the barrel turns an ever-deepening color of brown. Because of the toasting process, barrels are able to impart flavors of baking spices and vanilla to wine as it ages. Barrels are toasted at different levels, and winemakers choose barrels at different toast levels to suit the wine style they desire: fragrant and green, sweet and supple, or strong and spicy.
What bourbon barrels do
Bourbon barrels, by contrast, are more comparable to a marshmallow burned to a crisp. Completely blackened from intense heat, these barrels have a layer of char that imparts smoky and caramelized flavors into the bourbon. This layer also serves as a carbon filter to soften the spirit’s natural harshness.
When a wine is aged in a bourbon barrel, those same flavors—charred vanilla, dried herbs, caramel, honey, and toasted spice—appear in the wine. In addition to newly charred barrels, winemakers can use barrels once used to age bourbon, resulting in a hint of the spirit’s aromas in the wine. This powerful set of flavors is best suited for wines strong enough to stand up to the smoke. Cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel—with firm tannins and full body—are ideal for this form of barrel aging.
Taste the result firsthand with these three wines:
- 1000 Stories Zinfandel: This quintessentially American wine is blended with small amounts of petite syrah and syrah before being aged in both new and used bourbon barrels, imparting caramelization into the glass. It’s rounded out with a hint of smokiness.
- Stave & Steel Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon: Barrels previously used to house Kentucky bourbon are the flavor source for this cab, creating a well-structured wine with firm tannins. Hints of vanilla, caramel, and spice hover over a core of cherry, blackberry, and plum.
- Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon: Time spent in Kentucky bourbon barrels lends this wine its deep cherry red color and toasty vanilla and brown sugar aromas. Black cherry and blackberry fruits make up the full-bodied palate.
Tip: Bourbon barrel-aged wines perfectly complement smoked flavors. Enjoy them with a selection of hearty smoked meats, charcuterie meats with local cheeses, and a sliced baguette.