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Wine Tasting - Go Horizontal!

In my interactions with consumers I often hear comments like “all wine tastes the same to me”, or “I can't taste any difference, so I just buy the cheap stuff”.  Well, there might be some truth to these observations, but the fact of the matter is, anyone with a sense of smell can learn to differentiate between wines.  If you can tell the difference between the smell of asparagus and butterscotch you're good to go with wine tasting.  And, I suggest go horizontal.

No I don't mean taste wine lying down, but rather a horizontal tasting, one of the two common ways to evaluate wine, the other being a vertical tasting.  The difference is simple – a vertical tasting involves sampling different vintages of the same wine from one winery – in a horizontal tasting participants quaff wines from the same vintage from different wineries.  Horizontal tastings are also usually constrained with other criteria such as all wines from the same grape variety, or all from the same region. 

So why horizontal?  With hundreds of grape varieties, wine regions and wine makers combining to yield over 250,000 different wines each year, narrowing the playing field is absolutely necessary if you're to have a prayer at identifying taste and aromas in a wine.  Horizontal tastings have the benefit of focusing on one grape variety, highlighting both the common elements of the wine introduced by the grape itself, as well as the impact that the winemakers has during the vinification process.


To try a horizontal tasting, begin by selecting a single grape variety from a specific region – 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley, 2012 Chardonnays from Australia, 2004 Tempranillos from Spain, 2012 Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre, your choice.  Staying with one region keeps the tasting focused, since in the case of many grape varieties the differences between regions would make comparisons cloudy at best.  Research the variety (of course CorkQuiz is a great place to start) to identify three or four of the leading producers in the region.  Your task now is to visit your local wine shop and purchase a half dozen or more wines that you will taste.  As you taste the wines, first look for commonalities in body, alcohol levels, acidity and aromas in the wine.  As you move from one wine to the next, note also the differences.  Let's use Tempranillo from Rioja as an example.  The common aromas are dark berry, plum, leather or tobacco leaves, and herbs although Riojas can display aromas of chocolate, currants, prunes, and even strawberries. The amount of oak present will also vary depending on how long the wine was aged in oak barrels – Crianza being the least, Grand Reserva to most – but most all with display oak notes.

By attacking wines this way you can begin to separate the influence of producer, vineyard location, and even the age of the vines.  Some wines may appear bigger, or with more emphasis on the fruit aromas as opposed to earthy and leathery.  The amount of alcohol may vary depending on how ripe the grapes were prior to harvest, oak influence based on aging time.  All of these elements reflect largely on the winemakers' style or personality.

As always keep notes as you taste.  You should see a lot of commonalities between the wines, making it easier to pick up on the subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences introduced by the winemaker.

Cheers!

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