Some days a client will call in and ask what wines are on offer, so we go through a few names based on what is known of their history. Occasionally they will interrupt the flow once they hear a particular label and say “hang on, I’ve had their wines before, give me a few cases of those”.
The question that is not asked enough is – how long ago had they tried this wine? While I am happy to provide a product the client believes they will enjoy, to me this suggests a certain lack of awareness regarding variations between vintages. For this reason I propose that you attempt a vertical, or vintage, tasting.
A wine’s vintage refers to the year when the grapes were harvested, and is typically indicated on the label unless it is a non-vintage (NV) wine (that is, made from a combination of grapes from different vintages).
A vertical tasting is best done with red wines, as there are far more red varietals suitable for ageing than white ones. I suggest you follow with the international varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz/Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir. These will be easier to acquire from your local bottle shop or wine club.
As you build upon your knowledge, feel free to experiment with white wines that interest you. A few months ago I had the good fortune to come across a vertical six-pack of Tasmanian Rieslings ranging from 2006-2010, one bottle of which was late-harvested. I now regret not taking notes at the time.
For the remainder of this article I will predominantly discuss vintage variation as it relates to red wines.
The ideal vertical tasting is one where you sample four to six wines from the same winery, of the same grape varietal, but from different consecutive vintages, all in one sitting.
If you have trouble keeping to one particular winery, try to stay within the region. I specify consecutive vintages because I want to emphasise the more subtle variations. Two wines with a fifty-year gap will be plainly different – a toddler and a grandfather. To extend that metaphor, we are attempting to differentiate between close siblings, by their hair and eye colour, their freckles, and their manner of speech.
At a regular class or tasting you may be offered wines that are completely dissimilar, as they are aiming to cover a broad range of topics. On the other hand, a vertical tasting is an opportunity to learn how what you think is the “same” wine can have different expressions due to two main factors – ageing and vintage variation.
Ageing is the more predictable factor of the two. Changes in colour follow a progression from purple, ruby, garnet and so on. In young wines aromas and flavours are more fruit focused, but as it ages the fruit “drops out” and more developed characters emerge, such as game and leather.
Tannin particles eventually clump together and form sediment within the wine, which may necessitate decanting. As tannin is what gives red wine its colour, you may also find the visual intensity to be waning.
This is the more interesting factor to consider. Vintage variation encompasses everything that may have happened within the vineyard during the growing season. Variations in rainfall, sunlight and temperature are the usual considerations. Then there are elements such as mist, fog, diseases and pests. Even natural disasters that may have happened nearby can have an impact on the resulting wine of that vintage.
Considering the random nature of vintage variation, with complexity compounded when considering other grape-growing regions around the world, I suggest doing some research if you are considering any serious purchases.
- I remember tasting a 2009 Coonawarra Cabernet that had a slight and unusual smoky character – there had been some major bushfires in the neighbouring state of Victoria during the growing season. If this element had been too overbearing the wine would have been unsaleable, but while some will still consider this a fault, I found it intriguing and thought it added another dimension to the wine experience.
- Barossa Valley Shiraz is a staple of mine. I savour its depth and fruit-forwardness, but I had the misfortune to taste one from the 2011 vintage that was watery and weak, completely lacking what I had grown to expect from this region and varietal. I learned later that 2011 was a relatively cold, wet and rainy year. I had almost written the entire 2011 vintage off until I tried another from a different winery. It was clearly a different wine and much more aligned to my tastes. Evidently the winemaker was able to salvage this vintage with whatever tools and techniques at their disposal. This was an important lesson for me – great vintages are well and fine, but harsh vintages can also be wine.
While you can go through the list of usual criteria in a linear fashion, considering them in related groups can be more constructive. I suggest approaching the wines from three angles – visual, tactile and sensual. How does the wine look? How does it feel on the palate? What flavours can be sensed?
Clarity | Colour | Intensity – In most cases the wine should be clear, but if you see any sediment that could be an indication of age, where the tannin has had enough time to clump together. With your wines lined up, you may notice a gradual, progressive change in the wine’s colour from purple to garnet, from youngest to oldest.
Sweetness | Acidity | Alcohol | Tannin – In general ripeness is a battle between sugar and acidity – as the grapes ripen sugar levels rise and acid levels fall. Higher sugar levels correspond to higher potential alcohol. Tannin is the other element to observe in this tactile group. In addition to the level of tannins you should judge its character – is it astringent and bitter, or velvety and well-integrated? By considering these four elements as a group, you can build a profile of the vineyard conditions.
Aroma | Flavour | Intensity | Body – In years where there was much rainfall, it’s possible for the wine to be a little light – the berries expand as they take in more water and the flavours become diluted. If there was a lack of sunlight it’s possible for the grapes to be less than fully ripe, and this may contribute “greener” elements to the wine, such as cut grass, vine leaves, green capsicum, etc.
Once you have tried a proper vertical tasting your awareness of the subtle differences will be greatly expanded. By educating yourself on all these elements, and reinforcing your knowledge through continued experience, you can come close to understanding what makes you respond and leaves an indelible mark in your memory.