Vertical Wine Tasting

What do you do when you come across a number of different vintages, from the same winery? I put together a vertical wine tasting dinner!

Caramelized onions and goat cheese
A vertical wine tasting is where you have a number of bottles from the same winery, that are spread out over a number of vintages (harvest years). This is different from a horizontal wine tasting which a number of bottles from the same vintage, but all from different wineries.

In this case, we had found a deal online where five years of the Raymond Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon were up for sale. Limited amounts were available. By the time I had ordered, only four years were still for sale, so I picked up the 1986, 1987, 1989, and the 1992.

There were a total of four couples, and each couple was asked to bring an item that they felt would best pair with some older Cabernet Sauvignon. We decided not to have a full sit down dinner, but rather small bites, that would give us an opportunity to see how each paired with the wines, but also have time to taste each wine on its' own.

We opened the evening with a small cheese platter, which included Gouda, a sharp Vermont Cheddar cheese, and some aged Parmesan. Additionally, I like to experiment on friends, so I created a fig tepanade (figs, olives, capers, walnuts, olive oil, balsamic, and thyme) which was put on slide baguettes with goat cheese. We also had some crostini with blue cheese and caramelized onions.

Cheeses and fig tepanade
For the main courses (if you want to call them that), we had large mushroom caps, stuffed with bison and blue cheese; grilled lamb loin with a blackberry sauce and mint; and a beef stew with pearl onions. Every item paired wonderfully with the Cabernet Sauvignon. I am partial to lamb with Cabernet, and don't eat lamb too often, but I really liked how it worked with the blackberry and mint.

While we really didn't have a dessert in mind, we did have a number of chocolates that we tried. Each had a range of cocoa in them. They ranged from 60% to 85%. There was consensus that 70% was the right mix for a good pairing with Cabernet. The lower level (60% was too sweet) and the highest (85%) was just too bitter. We also had one chocolate with some chile powder in it, but it was too overwhelming, and it just didn't work.

According to their website, “Raymond Vineyards was a family business before the winery was ever established. Roy Raymond arrived in the Napa Valley in 1933, where he took work in the cellars at Beringer Brothers Winery in St. Helena, helping with the long process of rebuilding after Prohibition was repealed. While working at Beringer, Roy met Martha Jane Beringer, whom he married in 1936. Together they had two children, Roy Jr. and Walter. When Beringer was sold in 1971, the Raymond family left, purchasing 90 acres just south of St. Helena and launching their eponymous label. Still a family affair, Raymond Vineyards has been producing elegant and polished wines.”

Grilled lamb w/ blackberry sauce
As for the wines, which were the stars of the evening...we were pleasantly surprised that all had held up. There was some concerns when I pulled the corks. Being a sommelier, I am pretty good at getting old corks out in one piece. This night would prove to be the exception. Of the four bottles, only one cork came out in one piece. Two others came out in pieces, but no cork made it into the bottle. The last bottle (1992) and the youngest of the bunch, disintegrated, and required filtering through a wire filter, and into a decanter. Also, the 1992 had the most sediment of all the bottles, so decanting was needed anyway.

The 1986 vintage faced  heavy winter rains in February and March followed by a warm spring leading to early bud break. In general, the wines of 1986 were round and soft. Some late season rains posed some minor issue for those that harvest late. Our bottle -  The cork broke about mid way, but no signs of oxidation, or signs of leakage. Light aromas of tart cherries, but more bouquet leaning to leather and oak. Tannins were flat.

Bison & blue cheese stuffed mushrooms
The 1987 vintage had a drier than normal winter and a hot spring. Late summer heat led to an early crush for most winemakers. The yield was light. Our bottle  - The cork was stained about 90% up, but there was no signs of oxidation. Not much nose left but the taste was excellent. A bit thin on the palate. Cherries, leather, coffee and a bit of eucalyptus and surprisingly long finish. For me, this wine as the best for pairing with all the different foods, and was my personal favorite of the night.

The 1989 vintage was a dry year with low rainfall and a cool spring, but warm weather late.  Without some canopy thinning, wines of this vintage would pick up some vegetal aromas (as did our bottle). Our bottle – Once again, our cork broke about mid cork, No signs of leakage, or oxidation. This wine was the most vegetal/herbal of the four. Eucalyptus, celery, mixed with cherries and earth notes.

Corks: 1986, 1987, 1989, 1992
1992 was a “classic” vintage for Cabernet in Napa Valley. Low rainfall, warm days and cool nights for the entire season. A late harvest, and a cooling trend in late May meant more hang time and stronger flavor development. Our bottle – the cork completely disintegrated on us, and we have to filter and decant. Lots of sediment (versus the other three vintages). This bottle had more of the classic Cabernet aromas: Cassis, vanilla, cherry. This was the most fruit forward of the bunch, and was the overall favorite of our tasting group.

All the wines held up well (better than I can say for the corks). Raymond Vineyards once again, proves that it stands with any of the fine wines of Napa Valley. And, their wines do age well.


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  2. Hi Jim, just to ask. What is the best method to ace a vertical wine blind tasting? Would you be able to share some tricks :)

    1. I am not sure if you are asking about picking out the different vintages in a blind tasting, or just comparing the different vintages to each other? If the later, then you simply do your visual, nose and tasting notes, and evaluate each individually. If you are trying to pick out the different vintages, then things are a bit more need to know the weather conditions for each vintage. For example, during a cooler growing season, you may see higher acid. In rainy seasons, you may see more diluted flavors. I keep saying "may" because there are so many variables in what affects the flavor of the wine. Your visual notes should help with indication of age, but even then, this can be a challenge. So, no tricks to share, just keep up on descriptions of vintage.

  3. Great article – makes me feel like I am there. Hope to have a vertical wine tasting oneday. thanks.

  4. Vertical wine tasting is very popular style of tasting, it focused on a single wine, based on a number of different vintages. If you and your friends love to talk about wines, then a vertical wine tasting is a great way to achieve that.
    Wine Tastings Geelong