For physician Robert Young the answer was the Kentucky Derby. Young is a Kentucky native and the founder of Bending Branch Winery in Texas. When he planned his first Derby Extravaganza at the winery, to bring a little celebration of Kentucky bourbon country to Texas, he had a problem. Texas law doesn’t allow wineries to serve booze, and what’s a Derby party without mint juleps?
Young speaks in a deep Southern drawl, with frequent asides interrupting his train of thought, but a good storyteller’s knack for getting back to the point. In a telephone interview, he never referred to his homeland as Kentucky — it was always “Kentucky bourbon country.” I asked him how he first used bourbon barrels with wine.
“I was in a dilemma about how we were going to serve mint juleps at our Derby party, since winery laws here don’t allow you to serve hard liquor,” he explained. “So I got this barrel from a premium Kentucky distillery — I’m not at liberty to let you know where we get them, but I’ll tell you it’s some of the finest Kentucky bourbon made. So we put some of our sturdiest white wine, called picpoul blanc, in the barrel and tasted it every day. And on the 11th day, it was the most magical combination of picpoul and bourbon. So we pulled it out and made mint juleps out of it. We have made that wine every year for 10 years now.”
Skip ahead a few years.
“We noticed some wineries out on the West Coast were making reds with bourbon barrels, and that stimulated me to try it,” he explained. “So I went to Total Wine and bought all the ones I could find and tasted them.” Pause. “A lot of them were sweet.”
Young then began aging some tannat, a sturdy red grape best known in wines from southwestern France and Uruguay, for up to four months in bourbon barrels after aging in regular wine barrels. The result was Double Barrel Tannat, which is distributed throughout Texas and online from the winery.
“I chose tannat because in my opinion, if you’re going to age a red wine very long in these barrels, you need a wine that is big and bold enough to stand up to the bourbon,” Young told me. He sends an employee to Kentucky each year to bring several barrels — freshly emptied of bourbon — back to Texas. A nondisclosure agreement keeps him from identifying the distillery, but he said he buys from the same source each year. He made five barrels in 2016, his first vintage with bourbon reds, but doubled that production in 2017 after customers raved.
For Jed Steele, producer of good-value wines from up and down the West Coast, especially in his base in Lake County in California’s North Coast region, the decision to use bourbon barrels was driven by market demand.
“A couple years ago, my distributor in Nashville said red wines aged in bourbon barrels were selling well there, so he asked me to make some for him,” Steele told me. Another distributor in Birmingham, Ala., also expressed interest, and now Steele is making about 1,000 cases a year of the J.T. Steele Special Red Blend. It sells particularly well in the broader bourbon country of the southeast, he said. The blend is based on syrah and zinfandel and is aged for about four months in regular wine barrels and four more in bourbon barrels.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve seen fads come and go,” Steele says. “I thought this would fizzle out, but it seems to be gaining steam.”
What do the bourbon barrels give to the wine? “I get caramel and vanilla notes from the bourbon,” Young says. “We don’t want it to taste like bourbon, just to add a bit of complexity.”
The barrels also add alcohol. Steele and Young both acknowledged that the hard liquor seeped into the barrels affects the wine. Ryan Bogle, of Bogle Vineyards, told me his winery experimented with bourbon-barrel aging but decided against it because of the increase in alcohol.
As I tasted these wines, they were not as bad as I expected. Some, such as Bending Branch, Steele and Gnarly Head’s 1924 Double Black, were well-made wines. Yet the bourbon notes were in conflict with the fruit flavors of the wine. In a time when many winemakers strive for less oak influence on their wines, adding bourbon flavors through extra barrel aging seems nonsensical.
So, I’m still asking. Why?
Bending Branch Winery Double Barrel Tannat 2017
“Dr. Bob” Young has fashioned a rather nice wine here, with some of the tannat put through “flash detente,” a process designed to increase the extraction of tannins and color. There are notes of caramel and vanilla, flavors any well-toasted oak barrel can give to a wine — the edge to the flavor comes from the bourbon, and well, maybe the high alcohol. This is nice for the category, though the price is certainly a factor. Alcohol by volume: 15.7 percent.
Distributed by the winery in Texas, available elsewhere online from the winery.
J.T. Steele Special Red Wine Blend 2016
Lake County, Calif., $18
This is a blend mostly of syrah and zinfandel from Lake County, north of Napa County, and aged four months in bourbon barrels before bottling. It tastes mostly of red wine, partly of bourbon. Best of all, it’s dry. The smokiness from the barrels should make this wine a good partner for grilled steak. This is new to the DC area, but fairly widely distributed throughout the southeast. ABV: 14.5 percent.
Distributed by RNDC: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley, Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, Rodman’s.
Gnarly Head 1924 Double Black Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Lodi, Calif., $17
Here, the bourbon notes are an accent, like the squeeze of lemon that brings a dish to life without making it “lemony.” The wine is a bit sweet, with aromas of dried plums. The bourbon barrel-effect slides to the fore in the aftertaste. It would make for a fun experiment to ask someone to taste without showing the label, to see if they pick up the bourbon flavors. ABV: 15 percent.
Distributed by RNDC: Widely available.
Barrel Bomb Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Aged Proprietary Red Blend 2017
Of all the bourbon barrel-aged wines I tried, this was the sweetest. It’s a blend of red grapes from Lodi, so zinfandel probably figures prominently. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels, before being put into bourbon barrels for an additional 90 days. It is almost port-like, in flavor and alcohol level, so think of pairing this with chocolate cake or brownies. ABV: 16.5 percent.
Distributed by DMV: Available in the District at Paul’s of Chevy Chase, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Beer, Wine & Co. in Bethesda, Buehler’s Package Goods in St. Leonard, Crescent Beer & Wine in Bowie, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Fireside Deli & Wine Shop in Swanton, Frederick Wine House in Frederick, Hair O’ the Dog in Easton, Halpine Beer Wine and Deli in Rockville, Parkway Deli & Restaurant and Snider’s Super Foods in Silver Spring, Potomac Gourmet Market in National Harbor, Sunny’s Fine Wine & Spirits in Sykesville, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op in Takoma Park, Twist Wine & Spirits in Lexington Park, Upcounty Fine Wine & Beer in Clarksburg, Wine & Liquor Depot in Brandywine, Wine Bin in Ellicott City, the Wine Shoppe in Waldorf.
Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Aged in Bourbon Barrels 2018
Monterey County, Calif., $14
This bottle tastes a bit more like bourbon than wine, with a harsh, burned, ashy edge on the finish that masks the almost pleasant cherry flavors of the fruit. ABV: 14.5 percent.
Distributed by RNDC: Widely available.
Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.
More from Food: