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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

It was by tasting a dozen vintages of Mouton more than a decade ago that I came to understand 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 apprent in every bottle. Each had flamboyance - a sweet, core fruit profile supported by lush, velvety textured tannins. The vertical tasting also highlighted how Moutin's flashy youthful flavours are tamed over time in the bottle. The exuberant, sweet cedar notes and dense ripe blackberries evolve into spices, fragrant red potpourri and leather. I was able to tast how a wine with a few decades of bottle age can change for the better.

Verticle tastings are enlightening. A recent tasting in Bordeaux of Gruard-Larose dating to 1840 was eye-opening because it highlighted how well a second growth wine with a modest price tag can age. There's no need to spend more than HK$1000 a bottle to find execeptional wines that can easily age for 20 or 30 years.

I found ex-cellar Gruaud-Larose from the 1840 vintage a curiosity and intellectually interesting, but it did not offer much drinking pleasure: the wine is a skeleton of its former self, with barely perceptible flavours. On the other hand, I was impressed with Gruaud-Larose's 1900 and 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. They not only reveal a wine's ageing potential, they also uncover the wine's breeding, consistency and class by showing what it 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 great terroir, sound vineyard management and good winemaking skills. A vertical tasting quickly reveals who falls into this category.

At a recent vertical tasting of Colgin Cellars' IX Proprietary red wine, it was clear that these wines were among the highest calibre from Napa Valley. All seven vintages tasted were exceptional and, despite age and vintage variation, they shared a common DNA of layered flavours with clear ageing 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 and as softly spoken elegance, and the long finish revealed plenty of life ahead. The 2003 was also a joyful youth, still hanging onto some baby fat, but a serious wine with complexity, depth and breeding.

The 2004 and 2006 vintages impressed me the most. These were 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 possessed all the hallmarks of an extraordinary wine: generous, complex flavours that will evolve and reveal its multifaceted personality in the decades to come.

Great wines have personality that only a vertical tasting can reveal. Vintage variations can show a wine's flashy side in one vintage that is masked in another, or a demure, serious side evident in a more sombre vintage. It's wines like the 2006 Colgin IX red that keep me fascinated with wine and, like a beguiling companion, you never know what you'll discover in 10 years' time.

 By Jeannie Cho Lee