Whisky barrels add a fascinating finish for red wine

Care for a wee dram to go with your shiraz?

Only heaven knows if the marriage of wine and whisky barrels will last, but a handful of these out-of-the-ordinary wines are available right now. The idea itself might raise skepticism in a wine purist, and I have to admit that it did cause me to raise a proverbial eyebrow (the left one). But being a don't-knock-it-till-you-try-it kind of guy, I decided to see what these whisky barrel wines were all about.

There's the previously alluded-to Australian shiraz aged in barrels formerly used to age scotch whisky, and there's also a cabernet sauvignon from the same winemaker, aged in barrels that once held Irish whiskey. There are also two other wines - another cab and a zinfandel - aged in barrels once used for the classic American whiskey known as bourbon.

To be perfectly clear, we are talking about wine aged in barrels that were once used to age whisky. We are definitely not talking about any whisky being added to wine. That would be simply outrageous. The use of whisky barrels is unusual enough. It's not as if a winemaker has never used an old whisky barrel to age wine. Barrels are expensive, and for a young winery that doesn't have a lot of money to spend on brand new French or American oak barrels, well, you do what you can with what you have.

Change of direction

But usually repurposed barrels travel in the other direction - from wineries to distilleries. Most often, barrels used by wineries are either brand new or have been used in previous years for wine-ageing. They're reusable for several years, and when the wineries are done with them, options include selling them to whisky-makers, other spirits distillers or other wineries. In any case, the winery selling the barrels makes back some of the money it spent on the barrels when they were new, and the distilleries get the type of seasoned barrels they are looking for. (Whisky makers love dessert wine barrels.) Everybody wins.

These whisky-barrel wines are rare. You could even call them experimental - or the results of a few wineries' experiments. I could sense at least a faint whiff or taste of a whisky presence in all of them, but in a couple of cases, I wondered if it was just because I knew the conceit. In other words, none of these wines is a whisky bomb. These are not wines for whisky lovers. Whisky lovers love whisky, and if they also love wine, they surely don't want it to taste too much like whisky. And these don't. It is sometimes fun to tell a story about a winemaker, or a particular bottle, as you are pouring, and if that is your thing - to mention something novel about the wine as you present it - you are covered here.

"This wine was aged in whisky barrels." Say that, and you will grab your friends' attention, no matter where they stand on the wine purity continuum.

Here are four examples to try.

California

2014 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon

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Made of 85 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 10 per cent malbec and 5 per cent petit verdot from Monterey County in California's Central Coast, this wine was aged 10 months in regular ol' wine barrels, and a portion of the blend was aged for three months in Kentucky bourbon barrels. It offered up blackberry, blueberry, smoke, a whiff of whiskey tang, raspberry and a soft, vanilla-mocha finish. At 14.5 per cent alcohol, this cab packs a punch, but no one should be surprised by that.

2014 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel

​Bursts of raspberry jam mingle with black olive and black pepper in this zinfandel that ends with a delightful spicy quality. Sourcing zinfandel from California's Mendocino, Dry Creek Valley, Lodi and Colusa County regions, this blend also includes syrah and petite sirah. Some of the wine was aged in French and American oak barrels for six months, and then further aged in bourbon barrels. The wine also comes with zinfandel's signature high alcohol content, this one registering at 15.4 per cent.

South Australia

Below are two whisky barrel-aged wines from the Australian winemaker, Jacob's Creek. The name "Double Barrel" comes from the fact that they were each aged in traditional wine barrels and then finished in their respective whisky barrels. There's no vintage year on the front label of these bottles, but they each declare "2nd Vintage" on their back labels. Each one clocks in at 14.4 per cent alcohol.

Jacob's Creek Double Barrel Shiraz

This shiraz from the famed Barossa Valley region of South Australia started with notes of spiked eggnog that soared into a burst of candied fruit and eventually came in for a landing with a light spice finish. The wine was aged in traditional wine oak barrels and then further aged in scotch barrels.

Jacob's Creek Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon

Plum, leather, black cherry, a herbal and mushroom-y quality, and tobacco all emerge from this cabernet sauvignon, which hails from South Australia's Coonawarra region. The wine was aged in traditional wine oak barrels and then further aged in Irish whiskey barrels. Tannins are a bit grippier here than above, but this is still a lush wine.

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