Wine, meet bourbon

I like wine, and I like bourbon. But I had to think for a while before embracing the idea of wine kept in bourbon barrels to impart a whiff of Kentucky’s corn-based nectar.

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Bourbon is a big deal in my home town, Louisville, Kentucky, where bourbon has been produced and sold for nearly 200 years, but bourbon tourism became a big deal here only recently when someone finally figured out that our town becoming a sort of Napa of Booze would be a good and profitable thing.

But even if you’re not a bourbon fancier, you may nevertheless have encountered a taste of Kentucky’s native spirit in unexpected places, and you may not even know that. Here’s why: Federal alcohol laws, based on long tradition, require that bourbon be made from at least 51 percent corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol), and aged in new, charred oak barrels that impart bourbon’s characteristic sweet caramel flavor.

Notice I said new oak barrels? Yep. A standard 53-gallon Kentucky white oak barrel, carefully charred as the regulations required, costs the distillery $250 per barrel, and it may be used only once. So what happens to all those expensive used barrels? As you might imagine, giving them away for use as rain barrels or garden planters is not an option that the industry prefers.

Charred oak bourbon barrels at Louisville's Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Charred oak bourbon barrels at Louisville’s Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Fortunately, many other whiskey producing regions suffer under no such barrel restrictions. A large number of used barrels are sold to distillers in Canada and Scotland … little did you know that your wee dram of Scotch may contain at least a few molecules of Kentucky bourbon! Craft brewers in Kentucky and beyond are also winning applause for dark beer, stouts and porters, aged in used bourbon barrels.

But wine kept in bourbon barrels? That’s a new thing, an idea that hadn’t crossed my mind until I heard the other day from my old pal Jim Caudill, who’s now director of marketing communications for Treasury Wine Estates, now owner of Napa’s 151-year-old Beringer Winery.

Beringer, it develops, has just launched a line of Beringer Bros. wines, a new label that picks up a touch of bourbon when 20 percent of each batch is kept for 60 days in charred American oak barrels that originally held bourbon. (The rest of the wine is kept in neutral stainless steel tanks, to keep the bourbon element restrained.)

I was dubious at first, but curious too, so I agreed to have Jim ship me a bottle of the winery’s Red Blend for tasting. (They also make a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but I reasoned that the red blend, dominated by Petite Sirah and Syrah, might fare the best with bourbon’s aromas and flavors.)

In my judgement, it works. Frankly, at 14.5 percent alcohol and with a sweet, fruit-forward flavor profile, it’s not my favorite wine style. But I’m open-minded, and sure enough, it was appealing enough to call for a second glass.

With bourbon booming, there are plenty of used barrels around, looking for buyers to use them. I understand that other wineries are also producing bourbon-barrel aged wines, including Fetzer’s 1000 Stories, Robert Mondavi’s Bourbon Barrel, and Gallo’s Apothic Inferno. Don’t worry, I don’t see this taking over the market, but it’s a growing niche for those who favor that style.

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Today’s Tasting Report

Beringer Bros. 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Wine Blend ($20 winery price.)

Beringer Bros. 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Wine Blend

Bourbon isn’t obvious in the initial aroma of this bourbon-barrel aged wine, which offers black plums and blackberries, but there’s a pleasant sweet caramel note in the background that may come from a bourbon barrel but isn’t far from the scent of a traditional oak wine barrel. Sweet black fruit fills the palate, too, pleasant and sippable. Soft acidity is sufficient to provide structure, and a hint of tannins tickle at the edges of the palate. A hearty 14.5% alcohol, it’s a soft, smooth, slightly sweet wine, a crowd-pleaser. While it may not be a style that wine geeks with Euro-tuned palates favor, I can’t deny that it’s a good sipper, perhaps as well suited for drinking alone as with food. It’s a blend of 41% Petite Sirah, 21% Syrah, 18% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, and 2% undisclosed other grapes. (March 28, 2019)

FOOD MATCH: As noted, it’s fine for sipping on its own, but even with its sweet edge, it should serve well with grilled beef, lamb, or game, or with rich cheese dishes.

WHEN TO DRINK: With its soft, smooth style, I’ll wait for a track record to talk about aging potential. For now, I’d suggest drinking it soon until we see where it goes with bottle time.

The winery price is $20, but it’s widely discounted. reports a $16 average U.S. retail price.

This winery fact sheet offers basic information on Beringer Bros. 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Wine Blend, and also offers it for sale at $20 per bottle.

Locate vendors and check prices for Beringer Bros. California Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Wine Blend on

Click here for Wine-Searcher’s suggestions for Beringer Bros. California Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet

Finally, here’s the link to Wine-Searcher’s report for Beringer Bros. California Bourbon Barrel Aged Chardonnay.


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