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Formal wine tastings were traditionally structured in one of two ways, with a horizontal or vertical selection of bottles to assess. A horizontal setup would see numerous wines of the same vintage – or harvest year – made by different producers evaluated, while a vertical format compared different vintages of the same wine, usually ones from a stately Bordeaux château or collectable bottles from some notable California or Italian winery.
I’m a fan of comparative tastings, where different examples of the same or similar styles of wine are tasted together, so you can compare and contrast for a thorough assessment. They’re the best way to hone your tasting abilities and expand your wine knowledge. But I’m fond of more informal arrangements, especially for anyone who’s looking to host a tasting – virtual or in-person – while entertaining. Not only are more casually themed tastings easier to organize, they’re usually more meaningful for most consumers, too.
Outside of rarified circles, procuring a selection of the same producer’s wine from several different years is a challenge. The majority of wine shops only offer the current release. Vertical tastings these days seem to be the exclusive domain of long-established wine clubs such as the Winetasters of Toronto or marketing exercises by a winery looking to showcase their product’s pedigree.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be a wonderful experience to taste and see how each vintage and other factors influence the taste of the wines in the glass on that day. Tracing the evolution of a significant wine’s development is a great learning opportunity, but it requires attention and dedication; it’s more work than recreation.
Horizontal tastings are easier to organize as the focus is on wines from different producers produced in the same vintage year. These sessions tend to focus on one specific grape variety or wine style from a single region or country, so there’s an overarching point of comparison.
The hope for either a horizontal or vertical devised tasting is that by limiting variables, you can seek to pinpoint how factors, such as vintage variation or growing conditions, influence how the wine tastes on that particular day or, say, which producer’s pinot noir you most enjoyed from California’s 2018 vintage.
But neither of the classic tasting formats accurately address the way we enjoy wine today. Few wine lovers have a deep cellar to draw from or drink the same style of wine to the exclusion of all others. Most consumers enjoy the variety wine offers. That’s why I suggest taking a different angle. Select a theme that gives some focus to your tasting but allows for a range of wines to be featured, such as Tuscany, the south Okanagan or grenache-based wines. Pick a part of the world you’re unlikely to be able to travel to any time soon and let the wines and complimentary menu items transport you there.