Bourbon Barrel-Aging – or Not!

For some time now I have been hearing about this “trend”; reading articles and listening to industry experts. This week I finally decided to taste my very first red wine aged in a bourbon barrel; it was an Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon. Not a spirits fan, I did not quite understand the reason for this aging process, but I decided to give it a whirl – or in my case, a swirl.

Argentinian barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon
Argentinian barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon

From what I have heard, this barrel-aging technique is not a trend at all, but has been used for centuries; just not talked about. Due to the high cost of new barrels, it can be more cost-effective for some wine producers to purchase used barrels, be it from the spirits industry or other wine makers. Producers of some big reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and blends – have used bourbon barrels to age their wines, even using them to age Chardonnay. Made of charred American oak, bourbon barrels are taller and thinner than traditional wine barrels; this supposedly allows for more richness and complexity in the wines. Likewise, spirit producers have also purchased used barrels from wine makers, but that is a whole other story.

As with all barrel-aging, the characteristics of the barrel are usually detected in whatever is aged in them; attributes vary depending on the length of the aging. So, it would make sense to some, that if you reuse a barrel, you should also pick up some notes of what was previously aged in said barrel. Right? Uh, not so much. 

The wine I tasted was a traditional full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with blackberry and plum on the nose; no sweet spice, smoky cedar or bourbon bouquet detected by this sniffer. Nor did any essence of bourbon come through when I tasted the wine, which I am wholly grateful to report. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed the wine and would have enjoyed it more with a big juicy steak I am sure, but was it because of the bourbon barrel-aging? I truly have my doubts.

So, whether it is a trend that will soon fade away or a marketing ploy to get spirit drinkers to drink more wine, it may be worth your while to at least try a bourbon barrel-aged wine and see what you can detect. Or not! If you do or if you have, please let us know.

Cin Cin