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Wine aged in Bourbon barrels takes USA by storm

A red wine made from Californian Zinfandel that has been aged in Bourbon barrels has become a surprise success in the US and will be coming to the UK from May.

1000 Stories uses words ‘small batch’ on its front label, drawing on spirits marketing terminology

The product hails from Fetzer Vineyards ­– a business owned since 2011 by Chile’s Concha y Toro – and has enjoyed phenomenal growth from 5,000 cases in 2014 to 120,000 cases of annual sales in the past 12 months, according to Fetzer winemaking director, Bob Blue.

Called 1000 Stories, the Bourbon-barrel-aged red Zinfandel was the result of a “brainstorming session” almost five years ago at Fetzer, and has become so sought-after in its domestic market, the product become a major focus for Blue, a pioneer in organic viticulture, who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for his 25-year dedication to sustainable vineyard management in The Drinks Business Green Awards 2014.

“It has changed my life,” he told db at ProWein last month, where he said that he was now seeking further supplies of Zinfandel grapes to sate the demand for the product, which sees the wine spend two months ageing in former Bourbon casks following fermentation.

“We are now buying a lot of Zin, and going to Lodi, Paso Robles, and Mendocino for grapes; the growth has been dramatic, we’ve gone from nothing to 2,000 tonnes of fruit, it’s crazy,” he said – later commenting that he could grow the brand to 250,000 cases in the near future should the demand continue at its current rate.

Although he said that the wine was originally conceived as something that would appeal to men, he observed that the demand “is cutting across age and gender”, mentioning its appeal among “women and younger women” since the launch of 1000 Stories almost four years ago.

Looking back to the product’s origins, he said that the idea for the wine came about when discussing target markets and trending products in the drinks industry.

“We were talking about new projects and, having noticed that there were wines for women, we thought, how about a wine for guys? And what about using Bourbon barrels? – Because, as a franchise, Bourbon is really growing,” he recalled.

Blue then said that when he started making wine in 1982 it was actually fairly common in California to buy ex-Bourbon barrels for finishing wine – pointing out that it was only the small family-owned wineries like Mondavi and Montelena that were using French oak.

Not only that, but he remembered tasting extremely ripe styles of red during his youth – a type of wine that suited well the sweet flavours of American oak, and particularly those formerly used to age US whiskey.

“I remember the Zins in the late 70s, which were big wines made by picking really ripe grapes, so they were like Amarone on the vine, with some stuck ferments [to leave some residual sugar in the wine] which were then finished in Bourbon barrels,” he said.

As a result, when the team at Fetzer suggested in this decade the idea to age a wine in Bourbon barrels, Blue was able to tell them that he had already experienced this.

He also said that Bourbon producers were using ex-winery barrels to finish their spirits – such as Woodford Reserve, which use used Pinot Noir barrels from Sonoma-Cutrer – so it seemed apt to do the opposite and use the use casks from the spirits industry for finishing wines.

Wine laws in the US did, initially, prohibit wine producers from mentioning the use of barrels from the spirits industry on their labels, but Blue said that due to the craft beer movement, where different finishes have become commonplace, “the lines have been blurred, and the door has been opened, so we were able to get our label approved” – which clearly states that this wine uses Bourbon barrels.

He also assured db that Fetzer “is the first” to use Bourbon barrels in winemaking in the modern era of the Californian wine industry.

While the majority of the wine’s 120,000 cases are sold in the US, Blue said that around 10,000 cases go to Denmark each year, after a buyer from the country discovered the product at ProWein two years ago.

And, he said that 1000 Stories would now be coming to the UK, with Sainsbury’s becoming the first to list it, and then Ocado, the online supermarket.

1000 Stories sells for around $18 in the US, and will retail in the UK for around £18.

Having tasted the wine at ProWein, db can confirm that the Bourbon-barrel-aged Zin is certainly a juicy, rich and sweet-smelling red, but is not as concentrated or sugary as one might expect.

Indeed, although it has notes of caramel, vanilla and dried fruit on the nose, it tastes of ripe dark cherry and raisins, with a smooth and reasonably bright finish, making it perfectly quaffable on its own, and far from cloying or spirity.

According to Blue, the wine has around 6g/l of residual sugar and alcohol levels range from 14.9 to 15.8%, depending on the vintage.

He also told db that he carefully selects the casks for this wine, seeking out a “small amount of the more black Bourbon barrels for a smoky element,” adding, “I don’t want too much vanilla”.

To help promote the wine in the US, 1000 Stories has been a sponsor at the Bourbon Classic in Kentucky.

While the wine may be the first to use Bourbon barrels to add flavour, others are using casks from the spirits industry to finish their wines.

For example, Jacob’s Creek launched the The Double Barrel Matured Shiraz in Australia in 2014, which uses aged Scotch whisky barrels for finishing the wine, adding “complex nuances of almond-husks”.

And this year a Napa winery has released a Sauvignon Blanc aged in ex-Tequila barrels, to give “a toasty heat and subtle vanilla flavours”.

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