by Andrew Chalk
Scotch whisky must be aged in oak for at least three years. Straight bourbon must be aged in oak for at least two years. The ageing has such an all-encompassing effect on the smell and taste of the final product that it is very tightly controlled in order to ensure a consistent product, batch after batch. In the case of Scotch, the distilleries have long-term contracts with suppliers stipulating terms for the barrels. Often used sherry barrels that started life as bourbon barrels are the vessel of choice. In the case of bourbon, U.S. law stipulates that wood ageing must be in 100% new American oak.
In the last few years a handful of wineries have experimented with bourbon barrel ageing of their wines. I have now tasted several and I am reminded of the title of an opinion piece by Dave McIntyre that read “Just because you can age wine in bourbon barrels doesn’t mean you should”. That puts the point precisely. Bourbon barrels impart very distinctive bouquet and flavor notes and it is up to you to decide whether they appeal to you. The most use of bourbon barrels is with red wines, particularly full-bodied reds like cabernet sauvignon (Robert Mondavi, Gnarly Head), Zinfandel (Barrel Bomb, Steele), Tannat (Bending Branch, TX). It variously imparts alcohol (leached from the used barrels), sweetness, caramel flavors, bourbon flavors, and smokiness in the nose.
Below I taste the first white wine, a Chardonnay, I have come across subjected to bourbon barrel treatment. I should say that the brand, 1000 Stories, a Fetzer label that is ultimately owned by Chile’s Concha y Toro, is bourbon barrel ageing only. The Zinfandel, Prospector’s Proof (a red blend) and Carignan are all aged this way. They are also priced the same, at $19, clearly indicating the primacy of marketing and accountancy in the wine making process.
The Chardonnay has a straw color. A light nose of Meyer lemon, white peach, vanilla, and distinct woody notes (from the bourbon barrels). In the mouth the wood provides structure that you might expect from grape phenolics. Flavors are of Meyer lemon and caramel. Acids are medium and there is a discernible sweetness. The finish is short and fruit-driven.
I would put this down as a party wine to quaff although, even if your guests ‘dig bourbon barrel ageing’ it is a little pricey. With food, pair with white-sauced pasta or white fleshed fish.