Popular Wine-Tasting Themes

Regional, vertical, horizontal -- and checkerboard


I recently wrote about wine-tasting parties and almost as an afterthought mentioned a few common themes, so I thought I might take some time to discuss some of the more popular wine-tasting themes and delve into this topic a little deeper. Truth be told it’s a pretty common question; I am often asked, “What wines should I taste?” Well, here’s a brief rundown of some of my most frequent answers.


This is perhaps my favorite style of wine tasting, when you can pull it off. I generally incorporate dinner into my tastings. I plan for three or four flights of wine and a corresponding number of courses. Before each course is served, I allow for ample time to explore the wines, and then serve a dish that’s appropriate for the wines in question. My all-time favorite regional tasting focused on the Veneto region of Italy. I served three wines in each flight with the menu looking like this:

Prosecco -- Asparagus-stuffed shrimp wrapped with prosciutto

Soave -- Sarde in saor (Venetian-style sardines)

Valpolicella -- Radicchio risotto with a touch of ginger

Amarone -- Venison pastissada and polenta

Recioto -- Cheese plate that included Sottocenere and Mountain Gorgonzola!


The vertical tasting is a classic style of wine tasting, but one that requires some effort. A vertical is simply the wines of one producer across a range of years. This is a tricky tasting. Not only can it be a challenge to assemble the wines, but you also have to worry about the provenance (just a fancy word for describing how the bottles were stored) of the wines. If you can pull a vertical together it can be fascinating because you not only learn about the winemaker’s style, but having the various vintages made by the same hand lets you understand the differences between the years as well.


I do more horizontal tasting than any other kind. In a horizontal tasting you taste the same vintage across a range of producers. There is a lot more flexibility with horizontals than verticals. You can buy all current release wines for a horizontal tasting. Of course, you can also dig around for older wines as well.


OK, so I just made up that name, though I have heard people call this style of tasting "diagonals"! Basically it’s lining up a few mini verticals and tasting them together. For example, Diamond Creek in California is famous for its single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons. If you were to assemble several vintages of each -- say hypothetically ’84, ’85, ’86, and ’87 -- and then taste them all in mini horizontals that would be something like a checkerboard tasting. I am accepting suggestions for a new name, at least while I am awaiting a good date for my Diamond Creek Checkerboard!

Checkerboard II

Another type of checkerboard tasting, where you have the opportunity to cross-reference various aspects in addition to just assessing the vintage traits, are horizontals that include several bottlings from the same producer.

For example, if one were able to bring together the wines of Domaine Drouhin, Jadot and Bouchard in Burgundy from several various villages or vineyards such as Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Vosne-Romanée. In this case you get to learn about the winemaker’s style as well as vintage and differences between the appellations. Burgundy is particularly well-suited to this type of tasting, though I’ve pulled this off with Barolo and even California Pinot.


One of the easiest tastings to pull together is one that is simply variety-based. Gather up as many bottles as you like of the same grape -- it can span countries, vintages, and producers. This sort of tasting really can teach you all about a grape and how it works in various climates and develops under differing winemaking regimens. I find this to be the best type of tasting if it’s going to be a very casual, just hanging out type of tasting.


One of the most common styles of wine tastings is the producer-based tasting. While I put these together fairly rarely, it’s common due to all the winemaker dinners that wineries and retailers put on every year. This is a fun style of tasting where you can really learn a winemaker’s style. It’s frequently the best kind of tasting to accompany a dinner, since most wineries produce wines that are great before dinner, with various courses, and then after dinner!


And then there is the theme of no theme. This is what usually happens when I try to get my friends together for an organized tasting! Lots of promises for this bottle and that bottle. But in the end everybody seems to bring a few bottles that they want to drink. So we happily drink a lot of random bottles. It may not be ideal, but at least we pay more attention to each other than to the wines on these occasions!

What you need to host a Wine Tasting Party

I get this question all the time: "How do you host a wine-tasting party?" Well, the answer is pretty simple: I just call over some of my friends and we get straight to business! But seriously, hosting a wine-tasting party is pretty simple. You do need some supplies, but nothing exotic, and a handful of wines of course, but there is no great trick to hosting your own fête du vin!

Wine Tasting Party
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: HSquared
    173753 130

    I recently did an Old World, New World tasting. For example, we compared a California Chardonnay with a French white from Burgundy.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 12:46 PM

  • Snooth User: abquiat
    491506 19

    I nominate "three-dimensional" to replace the term "checkerboard".

    Nov 01, 2010 at 4:55 PM

  • Snooth User: mechita
    604290 6

    My friends and I like to go for "wines tastings" and wine dinners, so far we find quality, elegance, and clean wines on the Jorge Ordonez selections, (wines from Spain) try, Muga, Allende, Emilio Moro, Juan Gil, Spiga, they are all great wines !!!!!!

    Nov 01, 2010 at 5:57 PM

  • Snooth User: Perk08
    626876 16

    We did two tastings with a group of 12 friends over diner in the last year. The first 'single bottle club' had wines that costed over NZ$100 with a variety of Australian, French and Italian classics. The second diner had wines that had to be less than NZ$15 each. We found some surprisingly excellent wines in local supermarkets. All tastings with notes and marks acompanies with a five course meal (we are lucky to have our own masterchef in our group of friends). Maybe next time we go for 'vintage 9' or something like that, meaning all bottles need to be from 2009, 1999, 1989 and so on and/or from a specific region, grape or region. Always good fun, lots of laughing and good wines.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 6:08 PM

  • I'm planning a "Great Red Wines of the Columbia River Gorge" tasting fundraiser. I've selected 7 of my favorites - from 7 wineries - all different varietals and two red blends. the tasters (limit 25) will be challenged to try to identify the varietal and the winery (blind tasting). plus pick their top three choices in order. The top three winners get to choose a bottle of their selected favorite. If any of the participants are employed at a winery represented in the tasting (they are encouraged to attend) they can compete but if they fail to identify their own winery's wine - they lose 3 points! Appropriate cheeses and selected meats and breads complete the offering. The wines range in price from $20 to $40. Requested minimum donation is $25 which goes to the local charity - "Friends of Hood River Library" ----- Your challenge is: come up with a name for this tasting! I guess it fits your classification of "Regional" it is that. But I'm looking for something with more pizzazzzzz!

    Nov 01, 2010 at 7:07 PM

  • Gregory, looking at all you had to go through, I really feel sorry for you. But hey, somebody's got to do it!

    Nov 01, 2010 at 7:56 PM

  • Snooth User: pirateye
    622720 14


    You nailed the name, but in the wrong order, how about "Columbia River Great Red Wine Gorge"
    Sounds like a great event good luck.

    Nov 01, 2010 at 10:06 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,942

    Well have only reached your Veneto tasting so far, but am impressed. Why didn't you call? ;-)

    Nov 02, 2010 at 5:28 AM

  • I think some of the best wine tastings are "blind." Last week, I helped host a blind California vs. France tasting where, for each varietal, we compared one bottle from each area. The cost of each wine within each pair was kept the same. The wines, and thus the varietals, were not disclosed until the end, after the participants had voted on which wine they liked the best out of each pair, and why. We kept things simple with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet, but we could have gotten trickier if we wanted. The results were pretty interesting.

    Nov 02, 2010 at 9:27 AM

  • Don't forget "rainbow", in which you taste each style (white, rose, red and dessert) from a particular area (eg Bordeaux) or producer.

    But somehow all of our tastings descend into No 8 - chaos...

    Nov 02, 2010 at 11:44 AM

  • Snooth User: Stephen Harvey
    Hand of Snooth
    220753 1,287

    Lets not forget the "Liverbuster"

    2 Bottles per person, with Port and Cigars to finish!

    Sort of a Chaos with a kick

    Nov 03, 2010 at 8:15 AM

  • Mr Harvey, you sound like our kind of gentleman!

    Nov 03, 2010 at 8:36 AM

  • Snooth User: flbrkwino
    629921 1

    My cellar contains about 300 bottles of mostly OK to good wines with a few exceptional. My problem is that my wife and i cannot keep up with what I buy. So recently I invited 10 friends to dinner and told them all to go into the cellar and pick what ever they wanted to drink with no exception. First they could not believe that I was serious and second they were reluctant. In the end it worked out great and no one was brave enough to pick out the most expensive in the cellar and everyone participated and enjoyed.

    Nov 03, 2010 at 6:13 PM

  • Snooth User: All You Need Is Wine
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    600816 22

    I sell a blind wine tasting party game called "All You Need Is Wine". It is a great game for hosting wine tasting parties and a great holiday gift idea! Buy online for $29.99 at http://www.allyouneediswine.com

    Nov 04, 2010 at 10:29 PM

  • Sounds like a great idea!

    Nov 07, 2010 at 2:58 PM

  • Snooth User: erniex
    634476 60

    In our private little wine club we always do tastings with themes, always blind, and the theme is one to be guessed by the participants as we go along.
    Quite many interesting and creative themes through the years, such as wines from countries participating in the soccer world championship (2002), and on the more serious side, wines from Antinori estates. The latter a quite interesting and highly recommendable one to try from a producer with quite many estates both in Italy and abroad, even in different price ranges and styles. Few other such widespread producers to be found out there.

    And if you haven´t done verticals already - get going. this is a super effective way to learn about vintages vs house style on a tight benchmark... And definitely not as informed wines as one would perhaps expect.

    Nov 09, 2010 at 1:32 AM

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