The Vertical Verdict
A Vertical Wine Tasting Lets You See How a Vintage Has Changed Over Time
WHEN SOMEONE SPEAKS of a "vertical" wine tasting, they are not generally referring to the position of the tasters either during or following the event. In many respects, vertical tastings are like retrospective shows at an art museum: a chance to see a collection of works by a single artist covering a broad spectrum of time.
There is an important difference. Paintings do not change over time; it is our impressions of them, and their historical contexts, that evolve. Wines, on the other hand, do change over time, so a vertical tasting provides only a snapshot of the wines at a certain moment in their evolution. In recent months I've attended several interesting verticals: a dozen vintages of Quilceda Creek cabernet sauvignon; seven vintages of Steele DuPratt Vineyard zinfandel; 15 of Chateau St. Jean Robert Young vineyard chardonnay and a 21-vintage retrospective of Beringer Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon, from 1977 through 1997.
There is a lot to be learned from vertical tastings. and it is surprisingly easy to put some simple ones together for your own enjoyment. (Well get to that in just a moment) Youll find that tasting through multiple vintages of the same wine opens a window on any number of interesting views. For example, when the wine consists of a single, unblended grape from a single vineyard (the Robert -Young chardonnay, for example, or the DuPratt zinfandel), those factorsthe varietal and the vineyardbecome constants. It is then possible to focus on how the individual vintage conditions varied, since thatalong with agewill be different from bottle to bottle.
You may also discover that the wine-maker explored different winemaking techniques over the years, testing out such things as barrel fermentation, secondary malolactic) fermentation, and different mixes of new and neutral oak. Its well worth a phone call to the winery, or a visit to their Web site, to see if you can obtain tasting notes and technical sheets on your wines ahead of time. Having such information adds a lot of enjoyment.
Some vertical tastings include wines whose blend of grapes (or vineyard sources) may have changed over the years. In these instances you can truly see the hand of the winemaker (as opposed to the flavor of vineyard) at work, as he or she attempts to find, refine and replicate a particular style from the wine that is consistent from vintage to vintage. Apart from all that, the main point of any vertical tasting is simply to see how a particular group of wines has aged. Did they evolve or merely survive? Do they taste better to you when young, middle-aged or mature? Every vertical tasting is unique and will offer its own answers to these questions.
Chateau St. Jean more or less pioneered the single-vineyard chardonnay phenomenon, making as many as nine different examples in a single year. Their Robert Young Vineyard chardonnay was first made in 1975, and not long ago a group of us slurped and swizzled through every vintage from 1982 to 1997. I was surprised to find that the original tasting sheets for these wines listed their aging potential as three to seven years. So the first half dozen bottles we tasted were really, really old in chardonnay years.
Winemaker Steven Reeder acknowledged this (amid spoke for most of those present) when he observed, I dont really like old chardonnays. I can appreciate them, but I like to drink them young. Nonetheless, the wines were all interesting in different ways, with flavors ranging from olive, herb and sherry cask in the older wines to caramel with a toffee candy finish in some of the more recent bottlings. Not too surprisingly, the standout vintage years1985, 1987, 1991 amid 1995produced the best, most long-lived wines.
Sitting down with winemaker led Steele to taste the 19931998 vintages of his DuPratt Vineyard zinfandel, I found him musing on the difficulties, rather than the advantages, of this particular vineyard. Its a very iffy place for zin," he sighed. We dont get it fully ripe every year. But, he added, brightening, its a vineyard with real vintage definition.
He was right; these were remarkably different wines, not just in their evolution, but in their basic styles. For me, the best of them all was the 1994: a dark, rich, leathery wine whose mature fruit tasted of pie cherries and prunes. It was holding up better than some of the younger bottles, but I came away convinced that zinfandel, much like chardonnay, almost always should be consumed within five years of its release.
It is big, tannic, Bordeaux-style red winespowerful blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other red grapes-that carry our highest expectations for lasting excellence. In Washington State no producer outshines Quilceda Creek, a cabernet specialist for more than two decades. I recently tasted more than a dozen of their wines, reaching all the way back to 1979, their first release. Here are wines that demonstrate, as owner Al Golitzin puts it, not a continuity of style, but continuous improvement.
The Quilceda Creek wines stood as a sort of Hallelujah Chorus to the rising stature of Washington State. They offered dramatic proof that they rightly belong with the best in the world. Indeed, there are few 1979 Bordeaux that can match the lovely, anise-flavored Quilceda Creek in gentle but elegant decline. Still very much alive and well were the dense, purple 1983; the tart, elegant 1987; the concentrated, youthful 1991in fact, all the vintages of the 1990s were a long way from being tired or over the hill.
The 2l-vintage Beringer taste-athon offered a virtually complete exploration of a prestigious California meritage (Bordeaux blend). Winemaker Ed Sbragia, who made them all, explained that his goal was to produce a wine that was better than the sum of its partsand its parts were pretty good all on their own. My dad taught me two winemaking rules, he confided, keep your barrels clean and keep them full. I realized early on that you didnt have to do a lot to red wine. A wine that was picked properly would make itself.
The older Beringer Private Reserve wines were fully mature, with flavors of raisins, prunes, occasionally mushrooms and roasted coffee. By the mid 1980s, more evidence of fruitspie cherries and plumsbegan to show up. The 1985 and 1987 were especially good, both drinking beautifully but certainly ready to be consumed, and not likely to improve further. Wines made during the past decade showed the most complexity, with 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1995 being the standouts. In these wines the fruit component was still sweet and juicy, and there were spices and fresh, toasty components from the barrel aging that made for complex and multidimensional wines.
Though it would be foolish to generalize too much from these disparate vertical tastings, I would urge anyone with wines in storage not to wait too long to begin enjoying them. At the very least, you will miss their fresh, youthful, vital years; at the worst, you will miss them completely.
Contributing Editor Paul Gregutt is the author of Northwest Vines (Sasquatch Books) His wine articles also appear in The Wine Enthusiast, Appellation and Decanter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.