Butter and Bourbon

Buttery and Bourbon-flavoured wines may not be the favourite styles of many critics, but for brands like Mondavi, they are proving popular and successful

Mondavi Buttery and Bourbon-flavoured wines
Mondavi Buttery and Bourbon-flavoured wines

Scan any selection of Chardonnay reviews and the chances are that you will find multiple positive references to ‘mineral’. There will be few if any to ‘buttery’. Now scan the US shelves, where you will encounter wines labelled as ‘Buttery Chardonnay’ from brands like Barefoot, Mondavi and Eden Valley. The giant Franzia was sued by JaM Cellars for packaging its ‘Rich & Buttery’ Chardonnay too similarly to their example that is simply named ‘Butter’.

These, heart-on-their-sleeves, wines are only part of the picture. There are plenty of wines on the market that deliver the same oak-plus-malolactic experience without using the ‘B’ word on their labels. Prominent among these are Rombauer and Frank Family which Treasury Wine Estates just bought for $315m, to fill 'a key portfolio gap in luxury Chardonnay'.

Not only in America

Suggestions that this might merely be a US phenomenon are undermined by the UK Berry Bros website that includes a blog post by Sebastian Balcombe one of its fine wine buying team, titled ‘the pleasure of oaked Chardonnay’.

In it, he acknowledges that admitting to liking oaked Chardonnay can be to “risk becoming a social pariah… you may as well have requested pineapple on your pizza or admitted to using tomato ketchup as a pasta sauce…” While, he continues, “more often than not, we spurn richness in our wines and instead favour pure, linear and lean wines that highlight the terroir of the vineyard… what I crave is pure unadulterated hedonism in my glass: I want my taste buds to be overwhelmed with buttery complexity, overcome by ripe tropical fruits, enveloped by cream.”

Balcombe’s ‘hedonistic’ recommendation is for a Brewer Clifton Sta Rita Hills 2017: “generous on the palate, with lashings of sun-soaked tropical fruit, a delicate nuttiness and wafts of baked brioche [with] plenty of acidity which keeps you grounded as your taste buds are delighted.”

If both Berry Bros buyers and Treasury Wine Estates bean counters agree on the appeal of buttery Chardonnay, it’s probably something we’re going to see more of.

Whiskey and wine

And the same is true of that other pariah-style, bourbon-barrel-matured wines, and the rum- and tequila-barrel-matured wines that have followed in their wake. There is nothing new in using barrels to add flavour to wine, of course, and there is a long tradition of ageing whisky in casks that have previously been used for sherry.

The notion of returning the compliment, by using barrels that have contained whiskey to age other beverages, originally began as long ago as 1992, when the Goose Island brewery launched a Bourbon County Stout that had spent time in a couple of casks supplied by Jim Beam.

It was not until 2014 when Fetzer introduced the world to its 1,000 Stories wines that anyone commercially did the same for wine, though Bob Blue, Fetzer’s winemaker recalled using used bourbon casks in the early 1980s when there was a shortage of alternatives.

The simple rationale behind ageing beer and wine in these casks is that bourbon is hugely popular in the US and that people who like drinking the sweet spirit are likely to get similar enjoyment from other beverages that have some the same characteristics. In other words, while wine lovers struggle to see the appeal of a 15.9% Cabernet or Zinfandel that tastes of American whiskey, it is precisely this characteristic that 13% of the US population – according to estimates of the number of bourbon drinkers – are likely to find attractive.

Deep pockets

Apparently US bourbon fans are quite well-heeled – 60% earn over $60,000 – and roughly a third are women. This proportion is apparently growing fast, and helps to explain the success of bourbon-barrel-aged wines from a long list of familiar wine brands, including Mondavi, Beringer, Apothic, Josh Cellars and Sebastiani as well as dedicated ones such as Stave & Steel, Cooper & Thief and Cask and Barrel. There are at least two dozen wineries now playing in this field and an estimated 7-10m cases being produced and sold every year.

Will this phenomenon prove to be exportable to other markets? No one knows, but Las Moras in Argentina and Jacobs Creek in Australia both now have their own examples and Hawesko, one of Germany’s biggest retailers now sells the Mondavi bourbon barrel Cabernet Sauvignon, while the leading UK retail group Majestic offers 1,000 Stories. So it would be unwise to ignore the trend.

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