Spring 2011

Verticals show how wines age

I've heard the term "vertical tasting" a number of times, but am not sure exactly what it means or what its purpose is. I'd like to know more.

A vertical tasting offers a chance to compare a set of wines, generally from the same winery, over a series of years. It allows the tasters to make a number of comparisons, but the focus typically is to observe how a particular wine varietal ages and note its changes over a number of years. There is no set number of wines to include, but usually there are at least five vintages.

In the spring of 2000, Wine Press Northwest did a vertical of Woodward Canyon Winery's Cabernet Sauvignons from 1981 to 1999. They included the predecessors to winemaker Rick Small's "Old Vines" series and the first years of "Old Vines," starting with 1995.

Our aim was to see how the wines were aging and to look at the progression of a single high-quality producer of renowned Northwest wines. My sidebar piece that recounted how each vintage from the Lowden, Wash., winery was aging began: "'The tasting panel agreed this was an incredible set of wines."

Sipping the 1983, Small observed about the then 17-year-old wine - which was the tasting panel's favorite - "It feels like an old friend every time I drink it."

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More recently, my wife and I attended a different type of vertical in February at Terra Blanca Winery's winemaker's dinner. Winemaker Keith Pilgrim had paired up his premium Bordeaux-style red, Onyx, from vintages 1999 through 2007 with a seven-course meal prepared by Dale Shepherd and his staff from the Blue Moon Restaurant in Kennewick.

It was a very different, less analytical vertical tasting of the Red Mountain winery's signature red wine, but in its own way even more satisfying because two years in the series were offered for tasting with appetizers, then each of the rest carefully paired with a course of food tailored to each wine's individual character.

For even more fun, one course featured two wines because the winery and cooking staffs were evenly split over which paired better with an arugula and spinach salad featuring gjetost cheese and a chocolate balsamic dressing.

Aging Northwest wines: A reader update

In response to my last column on the aging potential of Northwest wines, a former Washington resident now living in Texas sent me a note that indicates with even a little care, our red wines - especially Cabernet - last a long time.

Lloyd Piper, who lived in Richland from 1995-2003, reported he added a lot of Washington reds to his roughly 500-bottle cellar during his time in the Northwest, "mostly Cab, but some Merlot, Syrah and blends."

After two moves, first to Carlsbad, N.M., and then to Texas, in 2007, he reports his Northwest wines are doing well despite less-than-perfect conditions - "stored horizontally at air-conditioned house temperatures."

Even so, he reported few concerns. The first red he added to his cellar after arriving in Richland was the 1992 Kiona Reserve Estate Cabernet Reserve from the pioneer Red Mountain winery. For the next several years, he added cases of the estate reserve and some of the Washington Cab.

"All the Kiona Cab has held up exceptionally well," he reported. "When I first started tasting them at 8 and 9 years after the vintage, they were wonderful and fresh with many years to go. I would not hesitate to let them go 15 years in my storage conditions, and have without a significant drop-off."

Wine words: Fining

When you admire the crystal clarity of a wine, chances are you're observing the result of a combination of several procedures used to prepare a wine for bottling. The several-step process usually starts with racking, then fining, then perhaps cold stabilization and filtration.

Virtually all wines are at least racked, which gradually separates out the lees, or sediment, left behind as wines ferment in a tank or barrel. Fermenting and aging on the lees adds flavor and complexity, but most wine lovers want no part of the gunk that accumulates in the bottom of a tank.

Even after careful racking, many wines will have a bit of a hazy look to them, generally the result of suspended matter. Most of the suspended matter has either a positive or a negative charge, and the fining agent chosen will depend on what needs to be removed.

The most commonly used fining agents are egg white, tannin, gelatin, bentonite, isinglass and casein. Egg white, with its positive charge, takes out negatively charged particles, such as certain tannins and anthocyanins, which are the color pigments from grape skin. Bentonite, a claylike substance, has a negative charge, and commonly is used to fine out protein haze and other organics.

Winemakers striving to preserve the maximum amount of a wine's character and "natural" state often are leery of cold stabilization, which removes tartrates, a natural (and tasteless) part of the winemaking process. Certain purists feel the presence of tartrates is more likely to mean you're drinking a less processed, more natural wine.

Filtration also is frowned on by those who believe less fussing over a wine produces a more natural result. And they often point to filtration as removing elements that may be desirable. This, it's rather common to see wines labeled as "unfiltered," especially Pinot Noir, which many feel is especially prone to dropping out its lovely colors if it's overly processed.

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