Vintages & Verticals

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style, April 2012


To understand how a vintage affects a wine’s taste, plan a vertical wine tasting.

When you are in a wine store and you see two bottles of the same wine side-by-side, you may notice one has the year 2008 on its label while the other says 2009. What’s the difference? The best way to find out is to plan a vertical wine tasting. You are really lucky if you can find three vintages — the year the grapes were harvested — from the same winery so you may have to search online wine purveyors or peruse a friend’s wine collection for older bottles.

A vertical wine tasting compares different harvests from the same winery and varietal, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon. Vertical tastings are fun and they give you an opportunity to taste the distinctive differences that a year or two can make in a wine’s aging process. You may like a 2007 Sonoma County cabernet, but the 2009 bottle of the same wine may be too harsh.

Having consecutive years is the preferred way to set up a vertical tasting, but it is not always possible so don’t let a missing vintage stop you. For example, you may be able to find 2006, 2007, and 2009 vintages of a certain label but not the 2008. The distinctive differences between 2007 and 2009 vintages may be even more pronounced as you taste.

The first thing you need to understand before planning a vertical tasting is that most American wines are made to be consumed soon after you buy them, especially inexpensive wines. Red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo have commanding tannins and can age longer than, for example, a Merlot. Tannins, which come from the grape’s skins and seeds, can add to a wine’s greatness — or can be its downfall. Too much can make a wine harsh or astringent; too little and the wine will be light or “wimpy” as one of my wine friends says. Aging a good wine often brings the tannins into perfect balance with the alcohol and acidity — other important elements in wine.

Vertical Tasting Tips

1. Select varietals with high tannins.

2. Buy at least three vintages, ideally four.

3. Taste from youngest to oldest to evaluate how the wines have aged.

4. Swirl the first sip in your mouth; wait 30 seconds before your second sip and then evaluate.

5. Wait at least a minute or more before tasting the next vintage.

6. Go through the process without food; then try each vintage with a mild cheese or bread.

7. Keep notes about the vintages, particularly the ones you like.

You also want to start with a mid-to-higher priced wine. I recently attended a vertical wine tasting for Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($16 to $20). The 2009 vintage is readily available, but the host had collected vintages since 2006. The most recent vintage was not bad, but it did not have the complexity of the 2006 or 2007 vintages. Everyone agreed that the 2007 was our favorite; only later did I read that Wine Spectator described 2007 as a “textbook growing year” in Sonoma County. The WS Vintage Chart said Sonoma’s small 2007 crops produced “amazing wines defined by enormous complexity and plush tannins.” It also recommended holding this vintage even longer, and the 2006 vintage was certainly an indication that this Cabernet does age nicely. The 2006, although not as powerful as the 2007, was still very good with a nice nose and its black cherry flavors still intact.

Visit your local wine retailer and ask the consultant to help you with a vertical tasting. Many of them will be willing to help you track down the older vintages. Buying older vintages may cost you a little more, especially if it was considered a very good year. Otherwise, remember that wine store shelf with two vintages of the same wine I mentioned earlier? Buy a couple of extras and hold for several years. Each year add the latest released vintage to your collection and in 2014 you can have one heck of a vertical tasting!

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