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A bottle of Menage à Trois Cabernet aged three months in bourbon barrels. Photo by Ryan Woldt
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Cheers! North County: A bourbon barrel-aged wine exploration

“You gotta let it breathe. Let the tannins out.” In my house, we say that just about every time we open a bottle of wine. Then we immediately pour and start drinking.

We are not enlightened wine drinkers. Everything we know about tannins was learned from an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” For younger readers, HIMYM was a sitcom that we had to watch once a week on television. Then we would wait a week to watch it again. You can look it up. It was a real thing. Then you can watch the entire show on Hulu, but I must warn you it doesn’t hold up as well as “The Office.”

But I’m off-topic. Wine is not my expertise. Even when I was actively sampling and buying wines to sell in the various restaurants I’ve worked for, I was smart enough to crowdsource opinions from our regular wine drinking customers and owners, because at the end of the day it was more important that they liked it than I did. Years of selling was based on memorization. This style matches with red meat. This one with fish, and so on.

Grabbing on to the coattails of barrel-aged craft beers, similarly-aged wines started hitting the market in the mid-2010s. The flavors were big and bold, but it felt like a gimmick. People were buying the branding of bourbon barrel-aging, the stout bottle and the whiskey style label.

Fast forward a few years. You can find just about any crafted product that has been aged in bourbon barrels, including coffee, tea, chocolate, maple syrup and even soy sauce. It’s a trend with a long, slow burn. I never really understood it. When I want bourbon, I drink bourbon. When I want coffee, I drink coffee. When I want …you get the picture. So why, I wondered, put wine in a bourbon barrel at all?

Bourbon barrels have to be made of 100% American oak by law. The insides are charred, and when left to age, whatever liquid inside will start pulling flavors from the wood and whatever was previously stored in the barrel.

Even though wine is already often aged in oak casks, by using a bourbon barrel, in theory, it will infuse some of the big, rich and warm flavors traditionally found in bourbon, like maple, brown sugar or vanilla. By limiting the aging to only a few months the new flavors will hopefully enhance, and not overwhelm the original grape wine taste.

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This week I surprised myself by purchasing a bottle of Menage à Trois Cabernet aged three months in bourbon barrels. I even went over the house standard of $10 per bottle to get it. Menage à Trois is a Napa-based value brand known for blending red wines. Their wines can be found in just about every grocery or liquor store in California. The gimmick got me, I thought.

Pulling the wine cork out I’m surprised by the lack of bourbon whiskey smell. It smells more like a thick berry jam. I even get a brief hint of black licorice from the cork, but it disappears, never to return. I pour it into a grenade-shaped mason jar (much safer for our rug than a stemmed-wine glass) that will force any smells up into my nose as I drink. Again, I’m surprised by the subtleness. I take a sip.

It tastes like a cabernet, but smoother and more complex than my palate is used too, but I don’t taste any bourbon. In fact, if I didn’t know it was aged in a bourbon barrel, I never would have guessed it. What I do get are flavors that feel full and smooth. They mix well together, each softly blending into the next. Then, there it is! On the swallow, the bourbon influence appears in the form of comforting warmth and the tingling burn found in so many good bourbons.

Gimmick or not, half the bottle disappears. It drinks like a bourbon. Each sip introducing new flavors, leaving my limbs a little more relaxed than before, and finally sending me off into the future with that bourbon-y tingle at the end. This is a trend I can get behind, and today I might go hunting for some of those other bourbon barrel-aged treats. I think I’ll start with chocolate.

Be sure to check out the most recent episode of the Cheers! North County podcast featuring my full conversation with Brittany Merrill Yeng of Skrewball Whiskey. You can listen on The Coast News podcast directory or find links to all of your favorite podcast platforms.

Don’t forget to follow Cheers! North County on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Got an interesting story about your drinking adventures? Reach out! I want to hear it.