Vertical Tastings

23 August 2010
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


It was by tasting a dozen vintages of Mouton over a decade ago that I understood the meaning of a wine’s ‘personality’. Despite vintages that ranged from fantastic (1982 and 1986) to weak (1991 and 1992), the basic DNA of Mouton was apparent in every bottle: The wine always had a certain flamboyance, a sweet core fruit profile supported by lush, velvety textured tannins. The vertical tasting also highlighted how Mouton’s flashy youthful flavours become tame with time in bottle. The exuberant sweet cedar notes and dense ripe blackberries evolve into spices, fragrant red potpourri and leather. I didn’t need to hear a lecture about a wine’s aging potential since I could taste for myself how a wine with a few decades of bottle age can change and even taste better with time. Even now, I find vertical tastings extremely enlightening. A recent tasting in Bordeaux of Gruaud Larose going back to 1840 was eye-opening because it highlighted how well a second growth wine with a modest price tag can age! No need to spend over HK$1,000 per bottle to find wines that are exceptional and can easily age for 20 or 30 years. I found ex-cellar Gruaud Larose from the 1840 vintage a curiosity and intellectually interesting to try, but not a wine that offered much drinking pleasure – the wine is a skeleton of its former self with dried out fruit and barely perceptible flavours. On the other hand, I was really impressed with Gruaud Larose’s 1900 and the 1950 vintages, both of which were very much alive and offered real drinking pleasure: Silky tannins and dried violets that caressed the palate. Vertical tastings are one of the best barometers for judging wine quality. It not only reveals a wine’s aging potential, it also uncovers the wine’s breeding, consistency and class by showing what the wine can achieve in difficult, challenging vintages when nature is working against you. Anyone with basic winemaking skills can make great wine from great vintages, but to make fantastic wine in difficult vintages such as 1987, 1992 and 1993 in Bordeaux, it takes a combination of great terroir, sound vineyard management and good winemaking skills. A vertical tasting quickly reveals who falls under this camp. At a recent vertical tasting of Colgin Cellar’s IX Proprietary red wine, it was clear that these wines were among the highest caliber wines from Napa Valley. All seven vintages tasted were consistently exceptional and despite age and vintage variation, they shared a common DNA of layered flavours with clear aging potential. I was struck by the consistency and quality of the wines starting from its first vintage, 2002. Although the vines were babies in 2002, the wine had amazing grace, a soft-spoken elegance and the long finish revealed plenty of years of life ahead. The 2003 was also a joyful youth, still hanging on to some baby fat but it was clear this was a serious wine with complexity, depth and breeding. The 2004 and the 2006 vintages impressed me the most. These were both good but not great vintages in Napa but Colgin made great wine. I preferred the 2006 to the 2007, which was considered a great year in Napa with producers across the board making excellent wine. The 2006 Colgin IX red for me possessed all the hallmarks of an extraordinary wine: Generous, complex flavours that will clearly evolve and reveal its multi-faceted personality in the decades to come but delicious now; A profound palate structure that supports a wide flavour spectrum ranging from ripe blackberries to crushed rock and minerals; a finish that lingers and leaves you wanting another sip. Great wines have personality that only a vertical tasting can reveal. Vintage variations can show a wine’s flashy side present in one vintage while masked in another, or a demure, serious side that is evident in a more somber vintage. Tasting wines that have varying levels of bottle age shows how the multi-faceted flavours of great wine evolve over time. It is wines like 2006 Colgin IX red that keeps me fascinated with wine, and like a beguiling companion, you never know what you will discover in ten year’s time. 


Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post