If you're tired of bourbon, I wouldn't blame you. Like bacon and chipotle before it, the marketing-driven flavour trend has become inescapable, infiltrating not only burgers, coffee, desserts and barbecue sauce, but just about every other beverage, including coffee, beer, cider, even tequila. I want my tequila to taste like tequila, thanks, and my burgers to taste like beef.
That said, I'd recommend keeping an open mind toward wine aged in bourbon barrels – it's trendy, yes, but it's also a technique with legs.
There are already a half-dozen bourbon-barrel-aged wines on the market, and more being laid down as I type. The first reason is that aging wines in bourbon barrels leads to super easy-drinking results.
Take the rich and smoky Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-Aged Chardonnay, for example – a full-bodied wine that transcends butter and veers into butterscotch, yet still manages to retain a respectable finish.
Although that description will have people in the non-interventionist camp running in the opposite direction of this chardonnay, there's no question it's a serious crowd-pleaser, as is its sibling, the vanilla-heavy Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon. And even though there's a large camp of wine types declaring the heavy-oak trend over, paradoxically there are bound to be multiple copycats.
Here in Canada, for example, Niagara Region's Rosewood Estates just signed for the delivery of eight barrels from Kentucky last month and promptly filled them with honey wine, a nutty, lightly sweet hybrid of grape wine and mead that borders on a dessert wine. "We're really excited to use them, since they're so aromatic, but we really don't know what it's going to taste like yet," explains William Roman, Rosewood's general manager and head beekeeper. "What we're looking for is that smoky-sweet oak flavour, so that we can add these really unique bourbon-esque flavours across some of the honey wines."
To max out the smoked vanilla and caramel, Roman won't be seasoning or recharring the barrels, which is what makes this new bourbon-aging trend different from the standard practice of using bourbon casks to age new products. Spirits producers have been using second-hand American barrels for decades because they're plentiful and cheap, thanks to a Depression-era law mandating one-time use, to help give coopers a boost.
Traditional producers were just interested in the cheap wood, though, and would burn off old traces of bourbon. Today's barrels are being coveted specifically for their residual bourbon and the effect it imparts.
The technique can work well for beer – brewers such as B.C.'s 4 Mile and Central City have produced award-winning strong ales and dark porters aged in bourbon casks – but there is a danger of dulling certain flavour notes and homogenizing the taste with wood. That's the concern on the wine front, too, since the prevailing opinion among forward-thinking winemakers is that expressing the individuality of the terroir and grape is the highest calling.
But perhaps that's not of concern to drinkers. "My impression is that they're trying to get the taste of the residual bourbon into the wine for that feeling of heavy smoke," says Chris Lafleur, a sommelier at Toronto's E11even. "It probably adds a little more weight to the wine as well. And I think the average consumer prefers a heavy, strong, smooth wine, as opposed to one that's the most pure expression of a particular grape."
California has several options, including the Mondavis (seasonal releases here), Stave & Steel, Cooper & Thief and, available at the LCBO in Ontario and in Alberta, Fetzer's 1000 Stories, a zinfandel that takes the edge off its high alcohol content with a silky smoke finish.
Lafleur believes there may be others using that technique without explicitly advertising it on the label. "I actually don't think this trend will ever go away," he says. "I think there might come a time when they stop labelling it that way, though."
So, to paraphrase that old chestnut: Bourbon has peaked. Long live bourbon.