Breaking Barrel Rules: Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wines

We get excited when winemakers play around with the traditional oak barrel fermentation model when it comes to wine. Even if it just comes from a place of thrifty necessity versus a place of innovation. The fact is that there’s no reason wine needs to ferment in oak. There are flavors and styles that warrant an oak barrel, yes, but it is still wine even if it isn’t fermented in oak. It isn’t like, say bourbon, for example, which must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Speaking of bourbon, a California winemaker has been aging wines in bourbon barrels.

Of course, we’re more excited when winemakers trust stainless steel wine barrels and fermentation tanks for their product, but we applaud any break from the status quo.

Bob Blue of Fetzer Vineyard is, according to Vinepair, the unofficial “baron of bourbon barrel-aged wines.” Why did he begin to play with bourbon barrels? Cost. When the bourbon barrel-aged wines performed really well in the market, they just stuck with it.

Since bourbon can only be made in the United States, U.S. winemakers have the best access to the barrels and this unique ‘twist’ on popular wines. Now every major American wine brand has a line aged in spirits barrels, and not just bourbon barrels.

In a recent Vinepair article, contributor Tim McKirdy argues that, while purists might claim that bourbon barrel-aged wines aren’t technically wines, the popular market has shown they don’t care. “Spirits-barrel-aged wines don’t taste like the whiskeys or rums that previously occupied their casks,” writes McKirdy, “nor do they taste like most Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.” Instead, they embrace nuance and their non-traditional production and appeal to non-spirits-drinking consumers and non-wine-drinkers alike.

In fact, many makers of spirits-barrel-aged wines don’t even photograph it in wine glasses or distribute in traditionally shaped wine bottles. Instead, we see bearded men sipping wine from a rocks glass and stockier bottles reminiscent of spirits bottles.

As with any storied craft, winemaking is rich with tradition. As a result, it’s rich with a lot of misconceptions about “the right” way to do things. At Skolnik, we applaud the innovators in the wine and distilling industries, and we’re glad that the market seems to like them too.