Barrel-aging is a key attribute to winemaking. It’s part of the process that is called élevage, which in French refers to maturing of flavors that happens during bottling and fermenting. Back in the 1600s, the barrel was actually used for storing and while we no longer need to store in the same way, we’ve gotten used to the flavors that come with barrel-aging.
Typically, this process happens with a stainless steel or oak barrel. You have probably heard Chardonnays referred to as “oaked” or “unoaked” which simply refers to the type of barrel it was aged in. Each has its advantages but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about oak.
Aging in oak can have three effects on the wine: increased oxygen exposure which helps maturation, elevated tannins from the oak itself, and impact on the flavor from the age and toasting of the actual barrel.
So, that being said, what if the oak barrel was first used to age spirits? Many bourbons and whiskeys are aged for a long time in oak which means that wood is good and soaked with the beautiful flavors of the spirits.
There are some natural similarities between many wines and spirits. The deeper reds can have smoky notes of things like tobacco, cedar, or other spices, just like bourbon, rye, and whiskeys. A white wine will have adjacent flavors to that of tequila, particularly the bright notes of citrus and herbs.
There are many who say these spirit-aged wines aren’t true wines – and they’re not entirely wrong. The flavors and tastes from the spirits do intertwine themselves so well with the wines that it becomes hard to differentiate. Things like tannins and acidity which usually mark the varietal and palate are less noticeable because they blend together.
It can be a beautiful creation if done correctly because the flavor combinations are unique and different. Winemakers like Robert Mondavi and Cooper & Thief have created their own spirit-aged blends that sound pretty delightful if you’re into it. Pairings become more available as you can match to the notes of the wine or the spirit and still come up with some beautiful combinations.
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