Putting five ‘bourbon’ barrel-aged wines to a spirited test

Grilled steaks, braised ribs, burghers and bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s all the rage among trend-setting millennials, people aged 23 to 38 who have an affinity for new products and tastes.

Some say aging wine in bourbon, rum and Irish whiskey barrels is a marketing gimmick. Others say it’s what the younger generation wants – rich, big, sweeter, flavorful and higher alcoholic wines. Regardless, sales are booming. Robert Mondavi’s top-selling Bourbon-Barrel Aged Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99 a bottle) went from zero cases sold in 2016 to  a phenomenal 1.4 million in 2018.

Still, balance remains the key to making a good wine. If overdone, wine aged in flame-charred oak barrels of any spirit can overwhelm the grape’s natural fruit profile, transforming it into a candied-concoction of caramel, maple, vanilla, brown sugar, and sweet spices.

Intrigued, I recently conducted a blind tasting of five wines aged variously in bourbon, rum and whiskey barrels. Here are my impressions.

Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel 2016, Lodi, ($19.99) – The winemaker says “heavily charred” barrels are used to “impart nuanced layers of caramel, vanilla and toasty oak to intense, dark berry character.” Expecting a heavy-handed approach, I was pleasantly surprised by Four Virtues’s restraint. The taste of Zinfandel – black fruit and spices – rang true, enhanced by a thin, toasty caramel flavor and a very silky texture.

Cooper & Thief Cellarmaster Select Red Blend, Lodi ($23.99) – From its Kentucky bourbon-shaped bottle to classic labeling, (“Aged 3 Months in Bourbon Whiskey Barrels”), this had all the makings of a “cigar-and-sipping” port wine. Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and “3 percent others” make up the inky, purple-colored blend. It’s big, dense, velvety, and heavy on caramel and vanilla creaminess. The alcohol level is 16 percent.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Aged in Rum Barrels Merlot 2016, Monterrey, ($11.99) – I couldn’t find the best-selling Cabernet within 50 miles, so I landed here. A portion of Merlot  is aged in rum barrels and blended with regular oak-aged Merlot. The result is a carefully constructed wine – jammy, plummy, and smooth with soft rum influences of coconut and molasses that excite the senses. A good buy.

Apothic Inferno Small Batch Limited Release Red Blend, Lodi, ($9.99) – Aged in charred, white oak whiskey barrels for 60 days, Apothic leaves no doubt about its intent: pure, overpowering vanilla and coconut extract in a jammy wine sauce. At 15.9 percent alcohol it’s buzzworthy, but the fruit never surfaces from a deep caramel-flavored abyss.

Stave and Steel Bourbon Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($14.99)– This 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is aged four months in American oak barrels “toasted, charred and drenched in Kentucky bourbon.” It excels impressively for its refined spicy fruit notes, silky texture and appealingly long finish. Veteran winemaker James Foster, who grew up in Alabama, is on to something keen and expressive here.

Bargain of the Week: Daou Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Paso Robles, $19.99 – Smoke taint from wildfires has  impacted some pricy, northern California wines, but Paso Robles was unaffected making Daou’s second-label gem a huge bargain. Quality abounds in this fresh, complex wine featuring cherry, raspberry and licorice notes.

Coming Next Week: A team of wine experts make their Easter celebration recommendations.