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Should you mix whisky with wine? Let’s discuss, plus, another beauty release of local wines at Vintages

By Rick VanSickle

When it comes to mixing whisky and wine, some of the biggest wine brands in North America have jumped on the crowded bandwagon.

Robert Mondavi (Constellation) has its Private Selection Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon and also Cooper & Thief, a dedicated spirits-barrel-aged line launched in 2017. Fetzer has a bourbon-barrel-aged Zinfandel, 1000 Stories. Gallo bottled its first whisky barrel-aged Apothic Inferno in 2016.

Note: Also in this report, our recommendations from local wines at Vintages stores Saturday

Terlato owns The Federalist, The Wine Group makes Stave and Steel, and Treasury Wine Estates offers a line of bourbon-barrel-aged wines through its Beringer Bros. brand. Even Sam’s Club is enjoying a slice of the pie with Batch No. 198 Cabernet Sauvignon Bourbon Barrel Aged.

Here on home turf, Canada’s two biggest wine companies have joined the whisky fray — Arterra Canada recently released a special homage to one of its original founders with the launch of the company’s newest VQA wine called The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend is aged in whisky barrels, while the Chardonnay Sussreserve tasting notes do not specify whisky barrels, but there does appear to be some of those distinctive notes on the nose and palate of the white wine as well.

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And the biggest brand under the Arterra umbrella, Jackson-Triggs, just released at Vintages stores the new Bourbon Barrel Aged Merlot 2016 ($60) that was aged in small batch Kentucky bourbon barrels to deliver “well integrated notes of vanilla and butterscotch.”

Of course, the Peller family’s Gretzky winery and distillery in Niagara, which not only produces wine, but has a distillery on site producing a range of whiskies and other spirits, incorporates whisky in its No. 99 Whisky Oak Aged Red ($20), and the granddaddy of them all in this style, the Whisky Barrel Finished Red Cask Red ($120). The company says the Red Cask is “the culmination of years’ of extensive barrel aging in both French oak barrels and Wayne Gretzky Red Cask whisky barrels. The final result is a beautifully complex red wine like no other … intense, rich and full of depth.”

Another Canadian company, Foreign Affair in Niagara, which is owned by Corby Spirit and Wine Co., just introduced a Whisky Barrelled Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 with 29% of the grapes dried appassimento style for 100 days, barrel aged 12 months in French and American oak, then 5 months in Pike Creek Whisky (also owned by Corby) barrels.

At 16.5 % abv, the notes for the wine club exclusive only wine say that the whisky barrels “add a richness and complexity to this already bold wine. On the nose, aromas of rich caramel and smoky oak support notes of ripe fruit such as cherry, blackberry and black currant. The palate has bold but elegant flavours of ripe fruit to match the nose together with silky smooth tannins, balanced acidity and subtle oak and whisky notes all very integrated.”

I have not tasted the Foreign Affair wine, or most of the other big U.S. brands. I just have to state right up front, I’m game for trying anything and give everything a fair shake, but just the idea adding more oak to oak, even if it is soaked in whisky and bourbon, isn’t something I willingly gravitate toward.

The branding that I have seen for the newfangled whisky-barrel wines appears to be testosterone-driven; outdoorsy dudes in plaid shirts pouring wine into tumblers instead of stems, a male model in work boots sits on top of what looks like a dumpster with an open bottle of wine (apparently free pouring straight from the bottle?, darkness and fire is all around along with branding irons, steel, chains and sturdy men all drinking high-alcohol wine from bourbon glasses — not that there is anything wrong with that!

The branding in Canada is not like that at all. The wines are generally presented to fall in line with the rest of the portfolios, with perhaps a barrel or two on the label just to show the consumer there is something unique going on.

Tasting both The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright Red and White and Jackson-Triggs Bourbon Barrel Aged Merlot, it was a bit too much of that vanilla, toffee, smoky, butterscotch thing going on for me and also some brown sugar and disjointed maple notes. And heat, all those whisky-soaked barrels, turn up the alcohol to some hefty levels.

The Merlot was actually inviting on the nose with lovely ripe red fruits, pepper and spice, but turned aggressive on the palate with woodsy tannins and just too much overt barrels spice notes that buried the fruit completely. I tasted this with my daughter (22 years old) and she felt the same way (granted, she has a Pinot Noir/Gamay palate). Then later my wife Maureen tasted it and absolutely loved it (she has a palate that appreciates big red wines and full-on Chardonnays).

There’s no question that there is a market for the style of these wines and there’s no doubt in my mind that if I brought any one these to a boy’s golf weekend, for example, they would be an instant hit — bold, sassy and served with big juicy rare steaks … they serve a purpose. Not everyone has to like everything and critics will undoubtedly be split on this style, but these wines will appeal (in my opinion) to mostly men who prefer brown spirits and want to broaden their spectrum of drinks in their man caves.

Our recommendations for
Saturday’s Vintages wine release

It’s another very good release for local wines at Vintages stores this Saturday, but the most thrilling of the best are coming to “flagship” stores only. You don’t want to miss these:

Flagship stores only

Bachelder Wismer Vineyard #1 Wingfield Block Chardonnay 2015 ($48, 94 points) — The 2013 vintage of this Chardonnay from the Wingfield Block in the giant-sized Wismer Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench was Wines In Niagara’s Most Thrilling White Wine of the Year. So, there’s something about this wine that consistently rises to the top in my notes. It is subtle to begin, with flinty, saline minerality starting the attack on the nose. The apple and pear begin to emerge with citrus in behind. It is tight and fresh with fine oak spice that slowly emerges. It is such a pretty wine, a seductive wine on the palate with soft orchard fruits, a touch of acacia honey, fresh lemon, layers of flint, pebbly/river rock minerality and such beautifully integrated oak spice that never gets in the way of the fruit. It is layered and textured and dances delicately on the tongue and leads to a long, long finish. Simply gorgeous wine once again.

Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir 2016 ($48, 93 points) — Always a beautiful wine from the sublime terroir of the Lowrey family farm on the St. David’s Bench. A highly aromatic nose of bright raspberry, dark cherries, complex mineral notes, violets, forest floor and fully integrated oak spices. Such poise and elegance from a warm vintage and showing a range of red berries, fine, tight-grained tannins, luxurious texture and electric acidity on a long finish. A beautiful wine that shows solid structure for cellaring 5+ years.

A treat from B.C.

Culmina Merlot 2014 ($44, Vintages flag ship story only, 91 points) — The fruit was sourced from the estate’s Arise Bench on the Golden Mile Bench and was finished unfiltered and unfined with 100% French oak (15% new) aged for 16 months. Such a gorgeous nose of plums, cherries, blackberries, anise, sweet/savoury spices and toasted oak notes. It’s bright with a cavalcade of flavours on the entry to the palate. Look for ripe, dark and red berries, toasted vanilla spice and elegantly appointed spice notes on a supple, smooth delivery though the finish. Can cellar and develop 7+ years, but nicely integrated right now.

Also released at flagship stores, but not reviewed:

• Chateau des Charmes Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($40)

Regular release at Vintages

Tawse Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017 ($36 for 200 mL, 92 points) — A knockout nose of brilliant raspberry, thick cherry and integrated herbs and bramble notes. It’s unctuous on the palate but not cloying due to relatively high acidity. It shows a range of sweet red fruits that are rich and luxurious on the finish. A decadent red sweetie for those special occasions.

Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2018 ($18, 88 points) — This unoaked version of Flat Rock Chardonnay lets the fruit do all the talking. Such a fresh nose of peach, pear, apple and a lovely vein of minerality with just a touch of citrus. It’s fresh and crisp on the palate with a range of stone fruits, minerals and citrus with a clean, vibrant finish.

Tawse Limestone Ridge-North Estate Bottled Riesling 2016 ($26, 93 points) — This is killer Riesling. The nose lights up with salinity, lime, grapefruit and racy wet-stone minerality. It’s steely and taut on the palate despite 32 g/l of RS and shows vivid citrus, fresh-squeezed lime, lemon zest and it all balanced on a razor’s edge. Such incredible definition and freshness through the finish. Beautiful.

Henry of Pelham Family Tree Red 2016 ($19, 88 points) — The blend is Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir with the fruit barrel aged for 17 months in a mix of French and U.S. oak. It has a smoky/spicy nose with notes of cassis, cherry, raspberry, cracked black peppercorns and earthy/loamy accents. The dark and cherry fruits turn savoury on the palate with a lovley range of barrel oak spices all propped up by firm acidity.

A treat from B.C.

Mission Hill Reserve Pinot Gris 2018 ($23, 90 points) — Perfumed with scents of white peach, pear, lemon and honeycomb. On the palate fresh peach and pear prevail with a lemon-drop candy note mid-palate. There’s a clean, precise minerality on the finish, which paired nicely with raw oysters. (Michael Lowe review)

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal Icewine 2018 ($80 for 375 mL)
• Peller Signature Series Cabernet Franc Icewine 2016 ($99 for 375 mL)
• PondView Gold Series Vidal Icewine 2015 ($20 for 200 mL)
• Marquis Silver Line Blanc de Noirs Ice Rosé Sparkling ($30)
• Cave Spring Estate Gewurztraminer 2017 ($19)
• Redstone Chardonnay 2013 ($26)
• Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2015 ($40)
• Westcott Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($30)