I recently wrote about wine-tasting parties and almost as an afterthought mentioned a few common themes, so I thought I might take some time to discuss some of the more popular wine-tasting themes and delve into this topic a little deeper. Truth be told it’s a pretty common question; I am often asked, “What wines should I taste?” Well, here’s a brief rundown of some of my most frequent answers.
This is perhaps my favorite style of wine tasting, when you can pull it off. I generally incorporate dinner into my tastings. I plan for three or four flights of wine and a corresponding number of courses. Before each course is served, I allow for ample time to explore the wines, and then serve a dish that’s appropriate for the wines in question. My all-time favorite regional tasting focused on the Veneto region of Italy. I served three wines in each flight with the menu looking like this:
- Prosecco — Asparagus-stuffed shrimp wrapped with prosciutto
- Soave — Sarde in saor (Venetian-style sardines)
- Valpolicella — Radicchio risotto with a touch of ginger
- Amarone — Venison pastissada and polenta
- Recioto — Cheese plate that included Sottocenere and Mountain Gorgonzola!
The vertical tasting is a classic style of wine tasting, but one that requires some effort. A vertical is simply the wines of one producer across a range of years. This is a tricky tasting. Not only can it be a challenge to assemble the wines, but you also have to worry about the provenance (just a fancy word for describing how the bottles were stored) of the wines. If you can pull a vertical together it can be fascinating because you not only learn about the winemaker’s style, but having the various vintages made by the same hand lets you understand the differences between the years as well.
I do more horizontal tasting than any other kind. In a horizontal tasting you taste the same vintage across a range of producers. There is a lot more flexibility with horizontals than verticals. You can buy all current release wines for a horizontal tasting. Of course, you can also dig around for older wines as well.
OK, so I just made up that name, though I have heard people call this style of tasting “diagonals”! Basically it’s lining up a few mini verticals and tasting them together. For example, Diamond Creek in California is famous for its single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. If you were to assemble several vintages of each — say hypothetically ’84, ’85, ’86, and ’87 — and then taste those all in mini horizontals that would be something like a checkerboard tasting. I am accepting suggestions for a new name, at least while I am awaiting a good date for my Diamond Creek Checkerboard!
Another type of checkerboard tasting, where you have the opportunity to cross-reference various aspects in addition to just assessing the vintage traits, are horizontals that include several bottlings from the same producer.
For example, if one were able to bring together the wines of Domaine Drouhin, Jadot and Bouchard in Burgundy from several various villages or vineyards such as Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Vosne-Romanée. In this case you get to learn about the winemaker’s style as well as vintage and differences between the appellations. Burgundy is particularly well-suited to this type of tasting, though I’ve pulled this off with Barolo and even California Pinot.
One of the easiest tastings to pull together is one that is simply variety-based. Gather up as many bottles as you like of the same grape — it can span countries, vintages, and producers. This sort of tasting really can teach you all about a grape and how it works in various climates and develops under differing winemaking regimens. I find this to be the best type of tasting if it’s going to be a very casual, just hanging out type of tasting.
One of the most common styles of wine tastings is the producer-based tasting. While I put these together fairly rarely, it’s common due to all the winemaker dinners that wineries and retailers put on every year. This is a fun style of tasting where you can really learn a winemaker’s style. It’s frequently the best kind of tasting to accompany a dinner, since most wineries produce wines that are great before dinner, with various courses, and then after dinner!
And then there is the theme of no theme. This is what usually happens when I try to get my friends together for an organized tasting! Lots of promises for this bottle and that bottle. But in the end everybody seems to bring a few bottles that they want to drink. So we happily drink a lot of random bottles. It may not be ideal, but at least we pay more attention to each other than to the wines on these occasions!
By Gregory Dal Piaz