Tasting wines vertically > experiencing their evolution

Posted On December 4, 2006

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For the world’s great red wine producers, each succeeding vintage shapes the fundamental personalities of their wines. And a great part of the fun of enjoying fine red wines is observing and tracking each wine’s distinctive personality as it evolves over time with cellar aging.

Tasting vertically, that is, tasting different vintages of the same wine side by side, is the best way to appreciate both distinct vintage characteristics and the evolution of individual wines. Recently, two leading red wine producers, Herederos del Marqués de Riscal of Rioja, Spain, and Penfolds of Australia, each hosted dazzling vertical tastings of some their best wines.

Since 1858, Marqués de Riscal has made high quality Rioja red wines from Tempranillo grapes grown on prime, sunny hillside vineyards with poor soils in the mild mix of Mediterranean and Atlantic climates. The venerable winery presented its vertical tasting in celebration of the unveiling of its spectacular “Ciudad del Vino,” or “City of Wine” in Spain.

The project features a winery museum, a 43-suite luxury hotel, the Claudelie “Vinothérapie” spa, and a restaurant led by chef Francis Paniego, who features creative Basque-Rioja cuisine. Frank Gehry, an internationally renowned architect, provided the avant garde design concept with his trademark post-modern sculptural style. The flowing canopy features titanium plates vividly colored in pink, gold and silver recalling Marqués de Riscal’s wine bottle.

Rising majestically like a gothic cathedral in from the sea of vines engulfing the otherwise unassuming town of Elciego, the $77 million City of Wine has enjoyed great attention and overwhelming initial bookings, according to José Luis Muguiro Aznar, Marqués de Riscal’s general sales manager. But ultimately, he observed, the project simply enables and encourages “the enjoyment of one of life’s greatest pleasures: a fine glass of wine.”

Pedro Aznar Escudero led the vertical tasting of the 1995, 1996 and 2001 Marqués de Riscal’s Rioja Reserva, a traditional blend with 90 percent tempranillo, and the 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2001 Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel Red Reserva Rioja, a blend of approximately 60 percent Tempranillo and 40 percent traditional Bordeaux varieties such as cabernet sauvignon.

Sommeliers were favorably impressed with the engaging fruit, technical correctness, vintage variations, and diverse personalities in all the wines. Escudero says diversity is the key to creating wines of terroir, the mystical, yet compelling mix of geology, climate, grape variety and man’s guiding hand.

The 1995 wines were big, fruity and fleshy, but with plenty of finesse to permit enjoyment now. The 1996 wines were muscular and concentrated with great acidity and elegance, so additional cellar aging would be prudent.

The still-very-young 2001 wines have perfectly ripe fruit balanced by refreshing acids and ripe tannins. Escudero called 2001 “the best in the last 40 years” and says the 2001 Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel Red Reserva Rioja is “the best we have ever made.” With 85 percent tempranillo, its awesome power, admirable finesse and long finish will permit cellar aging over the next 15 years as the personality evolves completely.

Australian articulate and effusive Matt Lane, Penfolds’ global director of wine education, led a spirited and informative complete vertical tasting of seven vintages of Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz wine event. The tasting also included the 2001 vintage of Penfolds’ world-famous Grange Shiraz.

RWT, which stands for “Red Winemaking Trial” blends fruit from a variety of Barossa vineyard soils with vines ranging in age from 20 to 100 years. Most of the vineyards are dry-farmed, that is, without irrigation, to force the vines to struggle while producing fruit with maximum aromatic complexity, intense, juicy flavors, and ripe tannins.

Each vineyard’s grapes are fermented separately before the winemakers assemble the final wine, much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The wines are finished for 12 to 15 months in French oak barrels, only 50% to 70% are new, to impart supple tannins and restrained oak aromas. Lane says, “The French oak is a support rather than an influence.”

The 1998 RWT Shiraz is an amazing beauty. “It was a nearly perfect vintage with no rot, no mold, and nearly perfect grapes,” Lane said. The ripe fruit, spicy accents, lively acidity and fine, silky tannins are in marvelous harmony through a perfectly pitched finish of incredible length.

The 2001 RWT Shiraz is also outstanding, with ripe, brooding fruit aromas, fleshy, juicy fruit with spicy accents, refreshing acidity, ripe tannins and a well-balanced, long finish.

Finally, the 2001 Penfolds Grange Shiraz, the 50th anniversary vintage, is a magnificently intense and strikingly well-structured wine that will evolve for decades. Lane humbly noted that the National Trust of South Australia designated Penfolds Grange as an Australian “icon” for capturing a “sense of country and the essence of Australian ingenuity and innovation.”

Try the following >

  • 2001 Marqués de Riscal Reserva Rioja, Spain > Drink now. 
  • 1999 Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel Red Reserva Rioja, Spain > Drink now or hold. 
  • 2003 Penfolds RWT Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia > Hold for 5 to 10 years. 
  • 2001 Penfolds Grange Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia > Hold forever. 
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