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Try Something New with a Horizontal Wine Tasting

by Kim Donaldson, the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Bottlenotes.com, the premier online wine community where wine enthusiasts come to learn about wine, share tasting notes, and buy wine.

Given the economic climate these days, opting to stay home more versus going out to restaurants seems to be the norm. There are still some really fun and creative ways to learn about and enjoy wine, nonetheless. One great way to accomplish both those goals is to gather some friends and do what is referred to as a horizontal wine tasting. And no, horizontal does not (necessarily) refer to you physically during, or as a result of the tasting.

A horizontal tasting simply means buying or assembling different wines of the same variety and vintage. They can be from the same wine region, or you can go broad and find wines from different regions around the world. For instance, three to six Napa Cabernets from the 2005 vintage, or 2006 Sauvignon Blancs from around the world, make great horizontal tastings. If you happen to have bottles from an older vintage in your cellar, all the better, as the wines’ character will have developed over time and will make the tasting that much more interesting. (When you taste a series of wines from the same producer of varying vintages, this is actually described as a vertical tasting.)

The idea behind a horizontal tasting is to explore the similarities and differences between wines of the same year. Wine experts are prone to declaring certain years great, good, or mediocre. For instance if you were tasting Napa Cabernets or Cabernet Blends, you could start with the 2005 vintage of Lail Blueprint, Palmaz, Napa Valley Farms, Tobacco Road Cellars “Vitality” and Bacio Divino “Divine Kiss.” Or if you were in the mood for whites, 2005 Sauvignon Blancs from around the world could include Eradus (New Zealand), Spring Mountain (Napa), Amehlo (South Africa), Kingston FamilyVineyards Cariblanco (Chile), or Pretty Sally Winery (Australia).

A horizontal tasting is an interesting exploration into a range of winemaking styles, but also into what styles you personally prefer.

To get started with a horizontal tasting, you must first decide on a variety (or blend) and vintage, and then on a region or group of regions. You can assemble the wines in one of three ways:
1) Go to a wine shop or online wine retailer and buy 3-6 wines (depending on the size of your group and their appetite for consumption);
2) Find some appropriate bottles in your own collection; or
3) Ask each of your friends to bring a bottle in line with your theme (most economical!)

When setting up, you might consider printing up tasting notes, which are easily culled from wine websites such as Bottlenotes.com. The wineries’ and winemakers’ notes are generally available on the wineries’ websites as well. But leave space for people to write in their own observations and impressions.

Open the wines about an hour before your tasting to let them “breathe,” or open up. Ideally, each person will have a different wine glass for each wine, so they can compare the wines as they go. But if you have limited glassware, you can do two glasses per person, or even one if absolutely necessary. Try to avoid plastic cups, as the odor of the plastic masks many of the wines aromas and changes the overall flavor. (Quick fact: 80% of what you “taste” is determined by the aromas picked up by your nose. This is why when you have a cold you don’t taste the flavors of food as much.)

Arrange the wines in a specific order so people can keep track of what they are tasting. Provide water and simple plain crackers for people to have between wines. Keep the initial pours small (1 oz. or 3/4 of an inch or so) to allow for people to go back and taste again later after they have tried all the wines. If you have the time, pair some cheese to the wines, and after you taste all the wines, then try them again with cheese to see how they change. The fat content, salt, and acidity of the cheese can significantly alter the “taste” of the wine for better or worse.

Most importantly, have fun! Exploring the world of wine should be fun – and figuring out which vintages, varietals, or winemakers suit your personal tastes can be very satisfying. Whether you end up vertical or horizontal….time will tell.