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Have a Winery Experience at Home

wine glasses and bottles on a table

Looking for out-of-the-ordinary experiences on the weekends you’re not traveling? I recently experimented with doing a vertical wine tasting with friends and we had a blast!

I love the idea of vertical tastings! You taste the same wine (from the same vines), hopefully with the same winemaker, across multiple years. It lets you taste the impact the different growing seasons had on the wine, or in regions where the weather is fairly constant year to year, lets you taste how the wine ages throughout its life.

I experienced my first vertical tasting in 2010 at Tyrrell’s in Australia’s Hunter Valley. Among the 20+ wines I tasted, several were in vertical flights. The most memorable was tasting their Vat 1 Hunter Semillion. We tasted a 1999, 2003, and 2010 and it introduced me to two things that changed my wine world.

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1) White wine can age beautifully and does not, and in some cases, should not be drunk within a few years of bottling.

2) It is amazingly fun to taste the evolution of a wine over the years. While I did not find the several months old 2010 raw, unintegrated, and even “crude,” as my guide suggested, it was definitely more beautiful at 7 years, and still quite interesting at 11.

So that’s why I became a big fan of vertical tastings and how I wound up doing one of my own.

First, I picked the wine. I happened to have 4 consecutive years of Atalon’s Howell Mountain Merlot left over from various wine club shipments. I’m not anti-merlot, but it’s not usually my first pick when cracking open a bottle, so the tasting was the perfect time to give the wine the due it deserved.

Second, I thought about the food. I looked up the tasting notes and figured out foods with cheese,  herb seasoning or a little bit of spice would probably pair well. My friends were invited to bring dishes accordingly.

Third, I tried to set up the tasting to make it easy to compare the differences across years. I was fortunate enough to have 16 wine glasses, but if you prioritize cabinet space differently, you can do small pours of each year one at a time. I also went the last minute route with post-it notes designating the year.

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The results:

Wine: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 Keyes Vineyard Howell Mountain Merlot

Food: Roasted Eggplant in olive oil and sea salt, Italian Zuchinni Croissant Quiche , Spicy Sausage with Chevre in Pastry (clearly the most gifted chef in the group)

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Findings: I clearly should have decanted the 2004 and 2005 a bit before serving, as initial sips clearly skewed in favor of the older vintages. But once they had a chance to open up, the playing field evened out.

The 2004 was everyone’s favorite — silky (after decanting), a big beautiful nose, and lots of beautiful fruit.  We then diverged a bit in our preferences, the 04 & 05 had more spice and punchiness, the 02-03 were more subdued fruit, but none were the typical overbearing dark plummy fruit that I associate with most Merlots. Clearly I have not been drinking the right Merlots. 🙂

Half the fun of the tasting was not only deciding what year we liked best, but which food paired best with each. Even though the 2002 wasn’t my favorite, when paired with a creamy brie and seasoned cracker it was a happy experience. The 2004 was made even better with the spicy sausage pastry!

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So have some fun with your friends, try a vertical tasting/pairing one afternoon and don’t forget to pull out all the most pretentious descriptors you can think of. “Sumptuous mouth feel” was my favorite.

Where to buy: I’m having trouble finding locations other than the winery to buy Atalon or Tyrrell’s wines in the US. You can sign up on Wine.com to be notified if they get select vintages or use wine-searcher.com to search more broadly.

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Full Disclosure: I may receive affiliate credit from links in this post or on this site which will help fund my travels. Thank you for your support!

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