Hosting a Vertical Tasting
A Vertical Tasting is a fun way to learn about a particular wine producer, their wines and their style—along with different vintages from that region. Below are tips on hosting a small vertical tasting party so that you can gain the most enjoyment from (and knowledge about) the wines.
Decide on the Wines: In a vertical tasting, you’ll experience the same wine from the same producer over several vintages. You’ll want to sample at least three vintages and probably no more than six. The vintages don’t have to be successive (e.g., 2008, 2009, 2010) but they could be. Ideally, the wines would be obtained from a reputable wine shop or directly from the winery so you are confident that these bottles have been aged under good conditions.
Realize that not all wines make for an interesting vertical tasting, only vineyard-based wines. In general, a wine is either winemaker-based or vineyard-based. The primary goal of a winemaker-based wine is to maintain the “house” style. To achieve the same taste year after year, the winemaker plays a significant role in blending and shaping the wine. Vintage differences are not appreciated in winemaker-based wines! Be warned that just because a wine is over $30, doesn’t mean it’s a vineyard-based wine. But if it’s <$10 or is produced in volume > 1,000 cases, it’s probably a winemaker-based wine.
With a vineyard-based wine, the winemaker is trying to highlight what that specific vineyard and Mother Nature have to say each vintage. There will probably be significant variations over the vintages, which is the basis of our interest and education. While you should expect to enjoy some vintages more than others, you should definitely choose a wine that you appreciate in general from a producer you want to learn more about.
Remember the Goals: By tasting the same wine from different vintages side-by-side, the goal is to explore both the similarities and differences in the wines, which may be subtle or not-so-subtle. You are trying to educate your palate, but don’t expect to become an expert in one evening. Through successive tastings, you’ll become more familiar with regional resemblances, vineyard differences, varietal similarities, weather affects, and winemaking styles.
Wines from the same vineyard and producer have common characteristics. In general, the similarities can be attributed to:
- Vineyard: soil, drainage, elevation, aspect, farming philosophy
- Winemaking Style: fermentation regimen, aging vessels and overall philosophy
Each vintage also has distinct characteristics that set it apart from others. The differences can be generally attributed to:
- Age of the wine: often affects texture, aroma/flavor intensity
- Weather during the year: can affect aromas, flavors, texture, body, etc.
You should hope (or assume) that the bottle storage conditions of the wines are nearly identical, so that the comparison is meaningful and just those two differences remain. This gives you a chance to compare older vintages to younger ones, teaching you about how that wine typically ages and evolves with time (assuming those vintages are not anomalies in some way such that the aging is atypical).
Gather Information: In addition to acquiring the bottles, you should gather as much information about each of the wines as possible. On the producer or distributor’s website, you should find a data sheet outlining the specific weather conditions of that vintage, the winemaking style, and the vineyard details—all of which can further your education thus appreciation. In terms of weather, useful information would detail the spring conditions, the main growing season, and the harvest; whether each was wet or dry, and whether the temperatures were cool, mild, or hot.
Even if you don’t have much information on the wines, you can still identify the similar aromas and flavors due to the vineyard and winemaking style. You will always know the vintage, thus you can always speculate on aging affects and weather-based differences (even though you may not know their exact source).
Invite your Friends: My favorite vertical tasting parties involve six to eight people, which allows enough differing opinions to make the conversation interesting, yet a single group conversation is still possible. With more than eight, it can be difficult to hear everyone’s thoughts on every wine, and it's more likely that one or two people dominate the conversation. But that’s just my style and may not be yours.
Don’t be afraid to invite both wine novices and wine “experts”. Since wine is a personal journey, there are no rights and wrongs—and often novices help to ground the conversation in the basic, more hedonistic aspects of wine enjoyment (which can prevent the more knowledgeable people from getting too mired in the picky details). Your job as host will be to make sure that the conversation is balanced across all your friends throughout the evening.
Determine the Process: Do you want to start with the oldest wine or the youngest wine? There are advantages and disadvantages to both:
- Tasting wines oldest to youngest allows one’s palate to be most sensitive to all the subtleties and nuances of a well-aged wine in the beginning. As the wines continue the chronology and decrease in age, they will increase in alcohol, acidity, and tannin, all of which will fatigue your palate.
- Most verticals go from younger to older, however, because this follows a wine’s evolution as it gains bottle age, which can be fascinating. When you taste in this order, your palate moves from the more simple wines to more complex wines which can seem more natural.
If you have enough wine glasses, I recommend setting out one wine glass per wine per person—which assumes a sit-down tasting. This allows people to go back and forth between the wines, so they don’t have to rely on their imperfect memory. But this can also present logistical issues if you don't have enough table space.
You will also want to decide how formal the tasting should be. I like a format with an initial, formal stage that is singularly focused on the wines to be followed by much less formal phase.
- For the first stage, you might ask everyone to tasting the wines at their own pace, perhaps taking notes, with little or no discussion. A group discussion would come at the end of this phase. Alternatively, you can have everyone taste each wine at the same time, with each person voicing their thoughts in succession.
- The second stage might involve a more free-form discussion around the wines, perhaps bringing out the background information you gathered on the winery, weather, vineyard, etc. This would be a great time to serve some food, and even discuss the changes in the wines over the brief time period of the tasting, or based on tasting the wines with specific foods.
Prepare some Food: Having food available can be both a benefit and a hindrance during the evening, thus I recommend starting with just bread or crackers so that everyone can focus on the wines. At this stage, you wouldn't want any foods that could "compete" with the wines. Later on, you could serve foods that pair well with the wines—after all, wine is meant to be appreciated alongside food.
You might offer an array of appetizers or prepare a multi-course meal. Some of the small plates that pair well across many different wines are cheeses, salumis, olives, nuts, dried fruits. For some wines, crostini along with hummus, pesto, tapenade or caponata might taste very good. As for a multi-course meal, the website of the wine producer should have recipes. For example, the Montemaggiore website has many recipes and food pairing suggestions. Some wines really need food to be fully appreciated, which is why food can be an important component of your tasting.
Enjoy the Evening: If you'd like to make the evening more instructional, distribute tasting sheets and the wine information you’ve gathered. A tasting sheet can help people focus one's attention on the different components of tasting: aroma versus flavor, body versus texture, acidity versus alcohol. Here is an example of a Tasting Sheet and Information Chart prepared for a vertical tasting of 2008-2010 Montemaggiore Syrahs.
Aromas and flavors can be very nuanced and subtle, but fun to identify. Many are due to the varietal, while the vineyard site might emphasize one and de-emphasize another. Here are some of the common flavors of Montemaggiore wines:
- 3Divas: lemon, honey, orange blossom, roasted nuts
- Syrah: blackberry, cherry, pepper, spices, earth
- Syrafina: violets, citrus, blueberry, cherry, spices
- Nobile: chocolate, cocoa, black cherry, tobacco
After tasting all the wines, your group should discuss the commonalities and differences in the vintages. While each varietal and region and vintage can be different, here are some general guidelines for thinking about the vintage variation between wines:
- In wet years, especially if there is rain at harvest, flavors can be somewhat “diluted”
- In cold years, aromas and flavors can be more herbaceous or “green”. Tannins might be more harder, leading to a rougher texture when young
- In hot or dry years, flavors can lean towards the dried fruits (raisins, figs), while tannins can be bigger and fuller
- Younger wines tend to be more brash and bold, more intense, more fruity
- Older wines are usually smoother and softer, more complex yet subtle in their aromas and flavors
- In low-yielding years, the flavors can be more concentrated (and the opposite in high-yielding years).
One last note: you may want to have a strainer on hand, especially if you are tasting a wine older than ten years. Corks can crumble and you’ll want to be able to strain them out.
A Variation: You could also do a “blind” vertical tasting where no one knows which wine is which. Simply sheath the bottles in paper bags or aluminum foil, having someone else label them as A, B, C, etc. You could keep the vintage secret while revealing the producer, region, and varietal—or you could reveal no information and ask everyone to guess.