How to Get the Most Out of a Vertical Tasting?

Paso Robles Wine Club: Vertical Blind Tasting 

In a vertical tasting, different harvests of the same wine are tasted and compared, in sequence. It is a good way to see how the different conditions verified in each year, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, influence the resulting wines, the way they evolve and consequently their longevity.

It is common to present the wines from youngest to oldest in this kind of tasting, since it's expected that the older the vintage, the more complex the wine will be. However, younger wines are usually also more powerful, and to start with the youngest can lead to palate saturation, which can impair the assessment of the older, more delicate vintages, thus making it acceptable, and many times even preferable to go from the oldest to the youngest. In the end, it's a matter of focus and also, maybe, the greatest challenge about the tasting.

The tasted wines do not have to be from consecutive years nor is it definitive that such, if possible, is always preferable. As I see it, it is essentially a question of comprehensiveness versus representativeness: on the one hand, one must consider that the tasters' buds will invariably get tired after trying a certain number of wines; on the other, it is well known that many brands have well-defined, consistent styles, from year to year, so it may be counterproductive to taste every single, very similar harvest, being better, instead, to choose specimens of years that promise to present more visible differences: years known for being warmer, colder or wetter than usual, years in which the composition of the blend has changed significantly, years regarded as exceptionally good or weak, etc.

And if some suggest that it is better to keep the tasting somewhat small, with no more than about half a dozen specimens under test, it is an undeniable fact that some of the most spectacular tastings ever presented were extensive verticals that covered many decades of great wines. In these cases, the only way to carry out such an impressive task is to break down the tasting in smaller "flights", usually of 4-6 wines, with longer pauses between them -- sometimes, not more than one or two flights per day.

It is also very important to have palate cleansers available during the tasting. These can range from white bread and water, which favor accuracy since they don't significantly alter the perception of the taste of the wine, consequently being preferred in more technical tastings, to small pieces of cheese or cold meats, that interact differently with each wine and, if representing a concession in terms of accuracy by possibly hindering the perception of subtle differences between similar wines, can also help to improve the social aspect of the tasting, while at the same time helping to realize, to some extent, how gastronomic each vintage is.

Moreover, the number of people present, if the tasting is to be blind or not, or whether tasting sheets will be used, is, above all, a matter of taste and, even more, of purpose. What is commonly accepted as beneficial is that there is available some kind of information about the wines to be tasted, and also that can range from a spoken presentation of each wine by a host that can even be the producer's owner or current oenologist... to a set of written technical sheets, consultable at the end.