How to Host a Vertical Wine Tasting

Three women tasting wine together
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A vertical wine tasting is a survey of a series of wines based on vintage years. It is a fantastic way to experience just how unique every year can be in the world of wine. It can also enhance your understanding of the many factors that play subtle roles in a single wine.

Hosting a vertical wine tasting is very easy, and it is a fun way to entertain a small party of guests. It also promotes conversation among wine lovers and beginners alike. Everyone can learn and gain new perspectives while having a great time.

What's Involved in a Vertical Wine Tasting?

A vertical tasting is conducted by tasting one wine varietal from the same producer from several vintages. For example, you may set up a tasting to feature Clos Du Val’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 2003, 2004, and 2005.

Tasting the same varietal of wines from the same maker and the same vineyard leaves the production year as the “single” variable. This allows the party to see how dramatically or subtly wine changes from year to year. It will be a different experience every time.

  • You will get a better feel for a particular winery’s varietal style and composition with this type of tasting.
  • You can also see how unique weather patterns may affect the grapes from one year to the next.
  • Vertical wine tastings are fun for a round robin-style of entertaining. Get the same group together at a different home with a new host or hostess and explore many wines over a few months. You'll build on each experience and get to know a lot of wines together.

How to Set Up a Vertical Tasting

A vertical wine tasting can be as simple or elaborate as you like. It's best to keep it relatively low key, so you do not overwhelm guests with too many wines or too many people (and conversations). It works out best with three or four wines and fewer than ten people.

  1. Choose a favorite wine producer for which multiple vintages are readily available to you.
  2. Pick out that producer's premier varietal specialty. For instance, some wineries specialize in Zinfandel while others focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.
  3. Seek out three or four vintages that are (preferably) in direct or near succession (e.g., 2010, 2011, and 2012 or 2010, 2012, and 2014). 
  4. Gather literature about the wine along with any of the winemaker's notes that you can find for each vintage.
  5. Collect enough glasses, so each guest has one wine glass per wine. Alternatively, have a bucket available so guests can reuse their glass and won't feel obligated to finish each wine. (It's okay, and professional wine tasters dump wine all the time.)
  6. When it's tasting time, begin with either the oldest or youngest wine and work your way as a party through tasting each one. Pour small amounts of wine into each glass (around 2 ounces), so everyone gets a good taste. You can always pour a full glass of each guest's favorite after the tasting.
  7. Have paper and pencil available for guests to write down thoughts if they wish and encourage dialogue as you work through each wine.

The wine’s literature can be valuable after the tasting. Did the winemaker have a tough time with weather, insects, or did they change to new barrels during a certain vintage? Many factors play into a wine’s vintage heritage, and these can be interesting points of observation and conversation.