A Vantage on Vintage

Paul Blow

When I say that I’ve been doing a lot of vertical tasting lately, I don’t mean that I’ve been drinking wine while standing up. Formal wine tastings fall into two categories—horizontal and vertical, both intended to highlight differences and/or similarities among different wines. A horizontal tasting pits different wines from the same vintage against one another. A vertical tasting features different vintages of the same wine. If you’re a wine geek or a budding one, chances are you’ll attend one of these at some point.

A wine is a record of the weather and climatic conditions of a given year, so a lineup of vintages is one way to read history. That said, it’s not easy to assemble multiple vintages of a wine, which is why vertical tastings are rarefied events in the wine world, usually organized for the more profound and expensive wines.

Vertical tastings tend to be academic rather than hedonic. To see 25 vintages of Spottswoode or Shafer Hillside Select sitting in front of you can be both intimidating and a little dry—though a vertical tasting does not have to be that extensive. Spottswoode and Shafer are two of Napa Valley’s best Cabernet Sauvignons, but 25 is a lot of wine to concentrate on. There’s also something a little sad in seeing so many opulent and rare bottles opened for the rather cold purposes of examination and analysis. Any one of the bottles (for example, the 1985 Shafer Hillside Select) would be worth constructing a whole dinner around. And with 25 wines to taste, you have to spit out the wine, so it’s sad to see so many great bottles opened and knowing that they are not going to be enjoyed as they should be.

On the other hand, if you ever want to truly know a wine in that thorough, connoisseurish way, a vertical tasting is the best way to do it. I came to several realizations during my recent weeks of vertical tastings. With the Napa wines, it became clear to me that there is significant vintage variation in the Napa Valley. With all of its great California sun, people often claim that there are no bad vintages in Napa, or that they’re all the same. When you go back and taste more than two decades’ worth at one sitting, though, the fallacy of that claim is obvious—not only is there great variation, but many of the vintages that are rated highly upon release do not hold up to their early high praise. As delicious as many of the Spottswoode and Shafer wines were, the vertical tastings were also a good reminder of how young and evolving these wineries are. Twenty-five years of making wine is a blip in the wine world. Even at such storied vineyards, a lot of experimentation is still going on. The wines have changed noticeably in style over a short period of time, and they probably will continue to do so. The upshot: There’s still a lot to be learned even about wines from well-established regions like the Napa Valley.

At a vertical tasting of Château Haut-Brion Blanc, a legendary blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from Bordeaux, there really were no bad vintages; some are merely more interesting than others, which confirmed for me that this is one of the greatest white wines in the world. At a vertical tasting of 10 years of La Tâche, the famous red Burgundy and one of the most expensive wines in the world (no spitting with this one), I learned that there are plenty of bad vintages—more bad than good, in fact. But in the good ones, the wine is so ethereal and transcendent that La Tâche is simply considered great by the two or three good examples every decade.

It requires effort, but you can create a vertical tasting yourself by saving or procuring back vintages of a wine. (There are no rules, incidentally, that the vintages in a vertical have to be consecutive, or that it needs to be composed of anywhere near 25 wines.) Or you can pay some money and attend events like the World of Pinot Noir in Pismo Beach, California, or IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration) in Oregon, where tastings like this are often held and even guided by winemakers or acknowledged experts. And good wine shops, like K&L in San Francisco, Zachys in New York, and Sam’s in Chicago, regularly host vertical tastings. They’re a great way to learn—and, again, needn’t be done standing up.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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