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Winemakers Follow Bold Brewers And Get Creative

Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)

The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.

Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?

It’s already starting to happen.

Prairie Berry, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, specializes in fruit-infused wines such as Blue Suede Shoes, a blend of Zinfandel grapes and blueberries.

“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”

Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.

According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.

And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.

Adventures in wine drinking

Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blueberries are added to Zinfandel grapes to make this South Dakota wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

This creative Cab is aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

With its blue hue and festive bubbles, Blanc de Bleu is a head turner. Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Baking spices give this Zinfandel blend a chai-like character. Copyright 2016 Spicy Vines

Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.

Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo


Zester Daily contributor Tina Caputo is a wine, food and lifestyle writer based in Northern California. Her stories have also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, VisitCalifornia.com and Sonoma magazine. 

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