You might be thinking, “Do I have to go to a library to experience a library tasting?”
The simple answer is no.
But I can understand why wine and wine tastings can be intimidating. There is so much terminology, not to mention people who like to try to impress you with their “knowledge.” Whether what they say is valid or not.
One of those terms that confuses people is “library tasting.” What does it mean? And how is it different from just a regular tasting, not to mention different from tastings billed as “vertical” or “horizontal.”
Here’s the quick and easy guide to different types of wine tastings:
Library Wine Tasting
Each year after the grapes are harvested and the wine is made, most vintners set aside a number of cases to store in their “library.” That’s not a room full of books–although it could be if the room were also temperature-controlled! The winemakers save these cases for future drinking so that they can retain a snapshot of each vintage.
Recently, I attended a library tasting at Brecon Estate, a small artisanal winery in Paso Robles, California. Owner and winemaker Damian Grindley explained that each year he retains 4-5 cases of each wine for his library. With storage space at a premium, he held this library tasting weekend for club members to sample, and hopefully purchase, these wines to give him more space for future holdings.
Over the course of the weekend, each small group of 12 got to taste 4 of the 16 library wines, which ranged from a 2013 Albariño to a 2016 Syrah. To be fair to each group, each tasting consisted of a white, a Rhône, a Bordeaux and one other red. My group tasted the 2013 Albariño and Mourvèdre, a 2015 Reserve Cab and a 2016 Petit Sirah.
What’s most interesting to me about a library tasting is how the flavor profile of a varietal changes over time. For example, Albariño’s aren't normally stored for very long, so a 9-year-old one is unusual. It could have been just terrible…but it wasn’t. Although a fresh (2020 or newer) Albariño would be light, with good acid and refreshing for a hot summer day, this wasn’t that kind of wine. The 2013 Albariño smelled of flowers and tasted of honey, not at all sweet, and definitely bold. I loved it and did buy one of the only 24 bottles remaining.
Horizontal Wine Tasting
Somewhat like a library tasting, except all of the wines are from a single vintage. An example would be a 2016 horizontal, in which all the varietals from the 2016 vintage would be tasted.
The wineries best suited for this would be those that produce multiple types of the same varietal, such as several different Rhône-style wines. The difference to detect would be how the various blends impact the taste.
This also works in a wine shop that carries multiple wine labels. This would give participants a chance to see how various winemakers approach the same grape or blend, using grapes all harvested in the same year. The differences may be due to where the grapes are grown, the terroir (soil), the climate and of course, how the winemaker chooses to make the wine. It’s amazing how different they will all taste, even to the most novice wine drinker.
Vertical Wine Tasting
These wines would all be the same varietal but from different years. Best if the winery has a lot of storage capacity because it’s really fun to taste the same kind of wine spanning long periods of time.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a vertical tasting at Adelaida Vineyards, another boutique Paso Robles winery. Adelaida is one of the oldest in the region, dating back to the 1960s when the original owners planted Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The vertical tasting was led by longtime Adelaida winemaker Jeremy Weintraub, I tasted Chardonnay’s and Cab’s, from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, along with the current releases.
One of the most interesting discoveries was what a difference a year can make. We got to taste old Chard’s from back-to-back vintages from the mid-80s. They almost didn’t taste like the same wine! These were produced back in the day when California Chardonnay distinguished itself from its French counterparts by going heavy on the oak and malolactic fermentation. What that means in lay speak is that the Chard’s tasted of butter and vanilla. Great for a cake, not so much for a wine, IMHO! Glad today’s Chard’s are mostly in the clean, French style.
Bottom line is that it’s great fun and very educational to go to one of these special tastings if you have the opportunity. You’ll gain more appreciation for wine, and discover what you like and don’t like. And you’ll gain some knowledge that will be the real thing…not the arrogant kind that deserves air quotes.
And no, you don’t have to go to a library for a library tasting. Though that would be an interesting venue!
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