Wine Adventures

Wine in Whiskey Barrels? Huh?

Rolling Out the (Whiskey) Barrels

Right around 2014, a new trend in winemaking emerged, and it’s started to gain a lot of traction…and attention.  Some winemakers have begun to age their wines in used Bourbon whiskey barrels.  They call it “cross-aging.”

The venerable oak barrel plays a critical role in the way wine ages and tastes.  There are dozens of ways winemakers can use oak to flavor and “season” wine, but until now they’ve mainly stored and aged their wines in new or used French or American oak barrels. But apparently, this new trend of putting red wine in used whiskey barrels opens a new world of flavors and textures.  And this is no “underground” phenomenon.  Even major wineries like Mondavi and the Australian Jacob’s Creek are doing it.

White wines are also getting the treatment, being aged in barrels that formerly contained tequila or other clear spirits.  And the situation gets more interesting from there.

Jeff Kasavan, Cellarmaster at Cooper & Thief in Lodi, California, has over 30 years of experience as a winemaker, and says that “cross-aging” is a relatively new trend because “Bourbon barrels present a new array of aromas and richness that you can’t extract from traditional new oak barrel aging.”  He also ages his white Sauvignon Blanc in used tequila barrels.  “Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite varietals,” he says, “so I experimented with how the barrels could enhance the wine’s flavor experience.  The acidity and citrus notes of Sauvignon Blanc are complemented by the subtle heat and toasty vanilla flavors imparted by the former tequila barrels.”

However, this technique may not work with all wines.  The reds that Kasavan chooses to age in Bourbon barrels need significant tannin structure and flavor intensity.  “For my red blend,” he says, “I use predominantly Merlot and Syrah complemented by Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  They stand up the best to the big bold aromas and flavors imparted by the whiskey barrel aging process.”

All cross-aged wines start out in traditional oak barrels, but then winemakers like Jeff Kasavan and 1000 Stories winemaker Bob Blue put their wines in used whiskey barrels for an additional two or three months.

Blue agrees that richly-flavored wines are the ones to use for this technique.  “Big, bold wines are best for the intensity of Bourbon barrel-aging,” says Blue, “which is why Zinfandel is our flagship varietal.”  He continues, “Bourbon barrels are intense.  Most wines can’t tolerate that kind of barrel intensity, but Zinfandel seems to fit the bill just right.”

He also sees a bright future for wines made this way.  “At first, we thought 1000 Stories would be more appealing to men, but women have become very enthusiastic.  And the wine also cuts across various age groups, which shows that the category really has universal appeal.”

Discover the appeal for yourself with these new recommendations…

1000 Stories Gold Rush Red California 2016 ($20) – Deep rich garnet in the glass with toasty oak and vanilla aromas.  Charred vanilla and smoke flavors with blackberry, blueberry and 15% alcohol.  WW 89-90

1000 Stories Zinfandel California 2014 ($20) – Contains about 19% Petite Sirah, so it’s big, bold, and concentrated.  Some minerality on the nose, fresh black cherry that lingers on the finish.  Smoke and vanilla.  Aged in old and new Bourbon barrels.  WW 90

Cooper & Thief Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($33) – With a whopping 16.5% alcohol, this is not a typical example of the varietal.  Vanilla and smoke, with almond notes and a creamy texture.  Long finish of oak, vanilla, and crème brulee.  Blended with Colombard, Semillon, and “other whites.”  WW 86-87

Cooper & Thief Red Blend California 2014 ($33) -- Almost a Port, with 17% alcohol, this blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah is all about smoke, vanilla, and deep black fruit.  Nothing subtle about it, and lots more smoke and vanilla on the finish.  WW 89