Winemakers redefine tradition

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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 in 2014 released his first 1000 Stories Zinfandel. 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.

To read the full story, pick up a copy of the September/October issue of LiveIt magazine.

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