An Intro to Craft Beer’s Most Wine-Like Brews

Welcome to "I'd Tap That," in which Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit "whales" against "shelf turds" in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to Saison. This round: wine barrel-aged beers.

A pedantic specificity is something that excites beer geeks. Was this dry-hopped with Galaxy or Citra? Are these malts two-row or crystal? And I can tell there’s Brett in this beer, but are there any other wild yeasts or bacteria? That’s why I’ve always found it so odd how inexact brewers can be when it comes to their barrel treatments. Most beers today are simply “bourbon barrel-aged” (unless you somehow scored a highly-marketable Pappy barrel). Even more nettlesome is this emerging breed of wine barrel-aged beers, which are so often labeled as simply “aged in red wine barrels” or “aged in white wine barrels.”

There are thousands of types of wine around the world, from bracingly mineral chardonnay from Chablis to tropical sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and peppery, floral syrah from the northern Rhône to bombastic cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley. I wanted to explore what the barrels that once held these specific wines did to beers aged in them. Did they actually taste like the wines the barrels once held? Or was there really no need to label a beer as “merlot” barrel-aged? Perhaps merely noting “red wine” was good enough?

“Our goal with our wine barrel-aged beer is to promote the actual wine character to add to the already complex flavors and aromas in the beer,” Brian Nelson, the head brewer at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery told me. “We looked for fresh wine barrels that complement the style of beer that we want to age.”

Unlike whiskey barrels, whose boozy contents kill off wild bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, emptied wine barrels are often a breeding ground for them. It’s no wonder most wine barrel-aged beers end up becoming saisons, wild ales and other, often high-acid styles perfect for a wine lover’s palate.

Not surprisingly, American brewing’s earliest forays into wine barrel-aging started where many of the used barrels actually come from: California wine country. The first brewery to really commit to wine barrel-aging was Sonoma County’s Russian River Brewing Company, which was, at one time, a part of Korbel Champagne Cellars. When he took over as the brewmaster in 1997, Vinnie Cilurzo almost immediately began making and releasing a series of heavily wine-influenced beers, like Temptation (chardonnay barrels), Supplication (pinot noir) and Consecration (cabernet sauvignon). Today, many breweries in wine regions, like Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker, have likewise found great success in taking their area’s spent wine barrels and filling them with beer.

Over on the East Coast, Richmond’s Hardywood is right in the midst of several Virginia AVAs and receives barrels from the nearby Winery at Bull Run. But unlike most of the aforementioned breweries that use the bacteria remaining in the wood, Nelson steams his “fresh-dumped” barrels, which allows him to create beers that soak up the wine’s flavors without turning sour. Hardywood makes a rich, imperial stout called Ruse, aged in three different full-bodied red wine barrels, and a Belgian tripel, Vinalia Urbana, whose fruity, yeasty profile melds beautifully with the kiwi and honeysuckle flavors the spent sauvignon blanc barrels (from Napa’s Stag’s Leap) lend the beer.

“In that respect,” Nelson notes, “[these beers] create an opportunity for the wine enthusiast to be introduced into the craft beer world.”

In order to see what wine barrel-aging does to beers and whether specific wine barrels actually matter, we blind-tasted two dozen of them, trying to focus mostly on those that call out a specific variety or origin for their wine barrels. For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Associate Editor, Lizzie Munro; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. Unsurprisingly, we found that, in general, the barrel-aging of these beers added a creamier texture, but also a notable tannin character, lending a textural complexity that felt akin to wine. And some of the beers were not only aged in wine barrels, but also were fermented with grape must, which took the “wine-y” character to another level and made it far easier for us to drill down the variety used. Below are our five favorites.

Five Wine Barrel-Aged Beers to Try

The Bruery Rue Sans | 12.5 percent ABV
This Orange County brewery has an entire offshoot—Terreux—devoted to farmhouse ales, mainly of the wine barrel-aged variety. Rue Sans takes a sour rye ale and infuses it with roussanne grapes from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, then blends it with another sour rye beer before aging it in white wine barrels for nearly a year. The result evokes the style of buttery chardonnay once synonymous with California in the early aughts: slightly nutty and fruity with a distinct buttered popcorn flavor, all backed up by tangy acidity; it ticks all of the “guilty pleasure” boxes for the wine nerds.

Goose Island Gillian | 9.5 percent ABV
Goose Island as a whole performed admirably in our tasting, with our panel picking several of their “Sour Sister” beers, including Halia, Juliet and Madame Rose. But Gillian, a farmhouse ale aged in white wine barrels with white pepper, strawberries and honey added, stood out. Widely available in a way most wine barrel-aged beers are not, the beautiful, bright orange, hazy beer has a cheesy funk on the nose alongside fresh strawberries, apricots, a touch of oak and Szechuan peppercorn.

Threes Brewing Eternal Return: Chardonnay | 9 percent ABV
Gewürztraminer was the panel’s first thought upon sipping this delightful offering from the new-ish Brooklyn brewpub. Eternal Return, the brewery’s first attempt at a wine barrel-aged sour is a deceptively simple, floral and fruity (think honeysuckle blossom and white peach) Brett beer aged with chardonnay must in oak barrels. Brewer Greg Doroski has since released two Eternal Return variants with raspberries and cherries added, both also stellar.

Firestone Walker Feral Vinifera | 9.7 percent ABV
A highly aromatic wild ale that, no surprise, uses must from sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and muscat grapes. That blend helps ferment the wheat-based beer, which is further aged in French oak wine barrels alongside the brewer’s proprietary wild yeast and bacteria. The resulting beer is delicate and tropical with a hit of funk on the nose, and a leanness and acidity that makes it imminently drinkable, even at this ABV.

BFM Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien | 11 percent ABV
Long a “desert island” beer for me, I was pleasantly surprised that the group blindly picked this as one of our favorites. This Swiss bière de garde is full of a balsamic tartness on the outset that leads into layer after layer of complex flavors (boullion, soy sauce, dried red fruit) with a velvety mouthfeel and gently sour finish. Not only aged in a blend of wine casks (including merlot, pinot noir and cabernet), the beer was also fermented using wine yeast.