If you've ever been on your way out of the wine shop and noticed a side display with a handful of sultry looking bottles that you aren't quite sure what they are, they could be bourbon barrel aged wine. Trending with some and controversial with others, there's no doubt that this style of winemaking is a hot topic.
What Is Bourbon Barrel Aged Wine?
While new American oak, neutral French oak, stainless steel tanks, concrete eggs, amphora, and more are traditional aging vessels for wine, bourbon barrels really delve into a whole new realm. Because barrels for bourbon must be freshly charred oak, they become obsolete for further aging of bourbon after a single use. This plethora of spent barrels has resulted in some creative repurposing in the wine and beer industry. Wine aged in bourbon barrels falls somewhere out in no-man's land, not exactly a wine and not exactly a spirit. Typically, bold profile red grapes with grippy tannins are the chosen candidates to age in old bourbon barrels, like cabernet sauvignon. These bourbon barrel aged wines are also typically non-vintage, created by blending numerous wines from different years to make for the most interesting expression.
Differences Between Standard Aging Barrels and Bourbon Barrels
So, it's still wine in the barrel, right? Yes. However, the barrel is far from neutral. Both the recent char and the bourbon have a large effect on the wine. As the wine absorbs any remaining hard liquor that has saturated the wood during the aging process, it increases the alcohol content, bumping it up even further. The flavor profile of these wines is also heavily manipulated by the bourbon that came before it. Prominent notes of caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, oak, and maple meld with the dark fruit profiles of the grapes, resulting in robust, lusciously rich bodied wines, often with a sweet smokiness that lingers.
This heavy hand in the cellar is a far cry from what minimal intervention natural wines are. Herein is part of the controversy. But wines aged in bourbon barrels aren't really pretending to be anything but what they are. This hybrid beverage tends to appeal more to a spirits drinker than a purist wine drinker. They are often a spin-off label produced by large commercial wine companies aiming to branch out and lure in a new audience. Because these big hitter beverages are more about rich smoky vanilla notes laced with cherry and blackberry, they aren't a transparent expression of the grapes or vineyard, rather more of an infusion of sorts.
How To Serve It
These richly textured wines with their heady profiles have high ABVs that really are better suited for sipping, similar to a whiskey. A short pour of 3-4 ounces is a good start, served between 55-65°F (13-18°C). This allows for all those big aromas to really flourish as you sip, giving you the best tasting experience. You can also experiment with mixing the wine-like-beverage as a cocktail, bolstering it up with a splash of bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup to really highlight the effects of the barrel. Serve over ice in an old-fashioned glass for a sultry pre- or post-dinner drink.
Even though the wine has been aged in bourbon barrels and taken on some real whiskey vibes, it's still fermented grape juice, and it won't last for years once opened like a good bourbon. Store your bottle of bourbon barrel aged wine in a cool dark place away from temperature fluctuations and light prior to opening. When you are ready to open it, pour it up over the course of 5 days, keeping it in the fridge in between to slow down any further oxidation.
To Drink or Not To Drink
If you are still unsure about this richly flavored wine style, ask yourself a few questions. Do you typically like to drink oaked wines? Do you like the taste of vanilla in wine? Do you like classic bourbon? If you are answering yes, then there is a good chance you'll enjoy sipping a bourbon barrel aged wine.