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What is a vertical tasting? – ask Decanter

What do wine writers mean when they talk about a 'vertical tasting'?

A vertical tasting compares a number of wines from a single estate or producer, in which all the wines are produced under the same name or label but come from different years.

A ‘vertical’ allows tasters to see the evolution of a specific wine over time, as well as better understand the effect of growing conditions in different vintages, plus any changes to techniques in the winery and – in the case of blends – assemblage percentages.

By contrast, a ‘horizontal’ tasting compares wines from the same year and region/style. In this format, tasters look at differences between producers rather than comparing wines of different vintages from the same producer.

It’s common for established wineries around the world to hold vertical tastings that include vintages spanning several decades.

Bordeaux châteaux are very fond of these events, which can offer the taster a rare opportunity to witness the development of an estate’s wines over time, where the primary non-constant is the vintage.

For example, Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent and contributing editor, Jane Anson, often attends and writes up vertical tastings, such as this one involving Château Cantenac Brown vintages from 2009 to 2018.

Anson says, ‘Any vertical has its fair share of drama behind the scenes. Hail storms, frost, changes of ownership, wider economic events that impact sales. Depending on where you are in the world that might extend to earthquakes and forest fires.’

The opportunity to better understand ‘vintage variation’ is part of what makes a vertical tasting so interesting to many. 

Some wine commentators prefer the horizontal tasting, however. ‘We’d enjoy wine much more if we could abandon thinking about it in a vertical sense, and throw all our energy into thinking about it in a horizontal sense,’ wrote Andrew Jefford in a 2018 Decanter.com column.

‘The best way is horizontally, which means prizing the differences as sacrosanct, and giving them our full attention: enjoying difference for itself.’

Can I set up my own vertical tasting?

It’s relatively straight-forward to set up a vertical tasting at home. Here are some basic steps: 

  • Choose a favourite producer and wine, ideally the estate’s signature wine;
  • Source a handful (three to four) of vintages of the wine, produced in successive years;
  • Taste these side-by-side in vintage order – old to young or young to old.

Gather some technical sheets on the wines if you can. These are often available from the producer’s website, and they will generally offer information about the growing season, the percentages of grape varieties used in the blend for that particular year and winery techniques, such as use of oak and how long each wine was matured for.

It’s always interesting to compare the technical information, as well as the wines themselves.

See also: How to host a virtual wine tasting – Ask Decanter

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