Wine tastings. Sources of inspiration, knowledge, and occasionally a pretty decent buzz by the time all’s said and done. When I’m asked how I started getting into wine, I can point to a monthly wine tasting series the Sweet Partner in Crime and I used to attend regularly. These events introduced us to varietals, wine regions, the idea of terroir – but the most important part of it all is that we got to compare wines.
Comparison is key. Tasting a chardonnay from California next to one from Chile next to one from France gives you a clear vision of how wildly different a grape can taste when grown in different places. Similarly, you can taste three California chardonnays next to each other – one might be oaky, one buttery, and one crisp – all because of how the wine was treated after harvest. on These kinds of comparisons helps you learn what you like and what you’re looking for in a glass of wine.
Most tastings you find are freeform. They’re often simply collections of wines that someone either thinks would taste good together (like “Wines for Summer” or my May 18th “Wines across the Continents” tasting with Danny Gold at Party Source…hint, hint…) There’s nothing wrong with these and they’re a lot of fun, but it’s not necessarily the most educational experience.
If you hang out in the wine tasting world long enough, you’ll hear the WineSpeak terms “Vertical Tasting” and “Horizontal Tasting.” Either one of these should make your ears prick up like a beagle. These types of tastings are where you can learn the most.
I’ve only been to a couple of vertical tastings. A vertical tasting is a series of wines, usually from the same winery, from different vintages. As you can guess, these don’t come along too often. They’re often pretty high-end affairs, since if someone has that many bottles from a single winery lying around, they’re usually a collector – which will usually put the pricetag largely out of Vine range. So, if you ever get invited to one of these – jump at the chance and befriend this person! It’s a unique experience.
Much more common (and much more naughty sounding) is the Horizontal Tasting. Horizontal tastings you can do at home. (Hmm…more naughty sounding by the minute!.) A horizontal tasting is usually wines of the same varietal, vintage, and region. They often have similar price points. They’re usually from different wineries. If you find a region’s wines that you really like, you can gather a few bottles (and perhaps a few friends) to compare and contrast. This sharpens your palate and gives you a much better understanding of what you like and don’t like about that particular wine.
For example, the SPinC and I decided to do a horizontal tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. When we’re out on the town looking at pre-dinner drinks, she tends to go for these wines. We like them – they’re usually crisp, relatively light, grapefruity, and have an “herbaceous” quality on the nose. They’re good food wines because of their high acidity, but they’re plenty quaffable on their own. We decided to try three of them, all in the $12-15 range:
- The Crossings 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
- Brancott 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
- Kim Crawford 2010 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Our selections established quite a contrast. We started with the Crossings, which is so light in color that it practically looks like water. It was extremely acidic, full of grapefruit and lime, and very light. Lighter than most pinot grigio, I’d say – although with more character. I thought it tasted delicate and finished somewhat “prickly.”
The Brancott was heavier on the palate and richer. It wasn’t quite as tart – there were some honey flavors next to the citrus. The wine had a little more “oomph” to it. “If the the first is a lime, then this one is key lime pie,” remarked the SPinC.
The Kim Crawford tasted like it was designed for an American palate. Everything was toned down and smoothed out so as to be firmly middle of the road. Very easy to drink. There wasn’t as much herb and the citrus was less pronounced. “This is key lime pie with plenty of whipped cream,” came the comparison. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t nearly as interesting.
For dinner that evening, I grilled up some turkey burgers and some asparagus and tried the wines. We topped the burgers with avocado and tomato, and had some extra tomato slices alongside. When we did a little research, New Zealand sauvignon blanc was a recommended pairing for both asparagus and avocado – two foods that can be wine killers.
We discovered that the Crossings was one of the few white wines that tasted really good with tomatoes on their own. It makes sense with its high level of acidity, but we almost always think red wine with tomato-based stuff. It was also our choice with the asparagus (which we drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil). Some people think the “herbaceousness” of New Zealand sauvignon blanc smells like cat pee. While it might, it was a benefit with the asparagus. The flavors actually melded nicely.
The avocado and burgers worked best with the Brancott. The creaminess of the wine worked well with the texture of the avocado. Since this wine had a little more body, it was able to better handle the turkey. The grilled flavor didn’t overwhelm the wine at all.
The Crawford was just “wine” alongside this particular meal. It didn’t really do anything all that interesting for us. However, when we did a steamed sea bass and sautéed squash, tomatoes, and zucchini the next night, this wine was a very solid pairing. While it didn’t do as well for us next to these other New Zealand sauvignons at our initial tasting, on its own with different food, it was plenty tasty enough. The greater “creaminess” of this wine probably complemented the bass better than the other, more acidic Sauvignon Blancs would have.
All of these wines, in general, fall into the general flavor profile for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I mentioned above, but it was fascinating to see how much the wines varied within that general definition. This is what I mean by “sharpening your palate.” The more you try, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to find exactly what it is you’re looking for.