You Can Learn a Lot (and Have Fun) With a ‘Vertical Tasting’

“I can’t believe how much she’s grown!”

If you’re a parent, think back to when your child was 3 years old… and then 4… and then 5.

(You probably don’t have to do much thinking. Chances are you have lots of photos archived on Facebook.)

Then think about how many times you heard those seven words during those years, particularly from people who saw your child only once a year, perhaps during the holidays.

A lot can change in a year, especially when our kids are young.

Well, the same thing holds true for wine, and depending on the type of wine, the changes from year to year (i.e., vintage to vintage) can range from subtle to astounding.

That’s one of the reasons I love “vertical tastings,” a collection of wines — usually three, sometimes more — from different vintages that are opened, poured and tasted side by side.

Sometimes the vintages are a year apart, sometimes five years, sometimes even ten or more years.

What I’ve found by participating in dozens and dozens of vertical tastings through the years is that the longer the period between vintages, the more the differences are about simple aging rather than specific nuances of the wines.

In other words, when a well-stored red wine is 10 years old, it probably possesses most of the characteristics (aromas and flavors) of its youth. At the 20-year mark, much of the fruit impression is likely to have subsided. At 30 years, it’s more about whether the wine is still “alive” and “vibrant.”

In order to really experience vintage variances, you need to cut down the “distance” between the wines — obtain vintages that are closer together.

Let’s say you are in possession of three red wines, each made one year apart. To experience a “vertical tasting,” open each bottle, and pour three- or four-ounce samples in separate glasses. Give the wines a little time to rest, and then give each a good swirling. At that point, you’re ready for the vertical tasting to begin.

Moving from glass to glass, take note of:

* The different colors. Is one glass more “intense” than the others? Is one noticeably lighter? As you swirl the wines, does any sediment stick to one or more of the glasses (more common in older vintages)?

* The different aromas. Depending upon the amount of oak used in aging, younger wines will typically have a more “oaky” aroma, slightly older wines will show more fruit, and the oldest wines should project a nice balance between oak and fruit.

* The different flavors. The flavors of a wine typically mirror the aromas, and the same basic aging patterns take place. But not always. Furthermore, it’s not unusual for the flavors of older wines to evolve even during the small amount of time they may be in your glass. So, try the wines in order by age, swirl them, and then repeat the process.

Other factors that contribute to differences in vintages are the type of weather during the growing seasons, and the varietal makeup of the wine. Even if a wine consists of 90 percent of one variety, if you change the minority varietal, it can alter the aroma, flavor and overall perception of the wine.

Ultimately, a “vertical tasting” should be a learning experience — but a fun learning experience. Vinesse is currently offering newsletter subscribers an opportunity to try three consecutive vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by a single producer from grapes grown in a single vineyard.  If you aren’t a subscriber, call and ask about it today.

Invite a few friends, plan a potluck, and make sure you have enough wine glasses so each participant has three. You’ll see how much fun — and educational — a “vertical tasting” can be.

You may also discover how much a wine can “grow” in just a couple of years.

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Posted in In the Cellar, Wine in the Glass
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