Barrels were originally used by winemakers purely for practicality, as wooden casks were the default containers for most goods prior to our modern era. Since oak is the only tree whose wood is both watertight and malleable enough to bend, it became the timber of choice in both the shipbuilding and cooperage trades. Today, more efficient vessels of both kinds can be made of other materials, but coopers still make oak barrels for wine and spirits production because they contribute desirable sensory traits. Aging wine or whiskey in oak barrels adds an “oaky” flavor, but also enriches texture and concentrates the alcoholic liquid to its essence. Barrels used for wine are only lightly toasted, to coax out subtle flavors of vanilla and spice, but bourbon barrels are fully charred, contributing that spirit’s distinctive smoky, burnt sugar taste. The recent spike in bourbon’s popularity (and the resulting glut of used barrels) has led a few California vintners like this one to experiment with aging their wines in bourbon barrels. The technique works best with the boldest reds, but giving wines like this powerhouse zinfandel blend a finishing touch in bourbon barrels adds intriguing aromatics, resulting in flavors of bourbon-soaked cherries, caramelized figs and flan.
1000 Stories “Bourbon Barrel-Aged Gold Rush Red,” California. $16.99 (regularly $19.99; sale price through Dec. 31). PLCB Item #2665