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Host a Bona Fide Wine Tasting

Doing it right—with tasting mats, a lineup of glasses, and a theme—provides focus and a lot of fun

Fine Cooking Issue 49
Photos: Amy Albert
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Putting together your own wine tasting is one of the best ways to sharpen your tasting skills, learn about the vocabulary of wine, and discover your own tastes. But while tasting should always be fun, learning about the wine and retaining what you’ve learned require a bit of focus. So, before any bottles are opened and any wine is poured, you’ll need to do a little preparation. Here’s how to put together an organized tasting that’s both focused and a great way to spend time with friends.

Decide on a theme

First you’ll need to decide which wines to taste. The best way to do this is to stick to a theme. Here are a few suggestions.

A single grape variety. Try making a well-known grape like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot the focus of your tasting. Wines from these grapes are produced in wine regions all around the world, so this is a great way to explore how place of origin can express itself in terms of character. Or, try exploring lesser-known varieties such as Cabernet Franc or Viognier to learn more about their personalities.
A single geographic region. Tasting wines from the Marlborough in New Zealand, for example, is one of the best ways to learn what a wine-growing area has to offer (short of visiting, that is).
A single producer. This is a really good way to get to know a winemaker’s style, as well as to find out how well they’ve handled challenges—such as frost, early hot weather, too much or too little rainfall—that can make for difficult vintages.
Wines under $10. Organizing your tasting needn’t cost a fortune, and having a set budget can actually expand your options as far as the potential selection and number of wines used.

Decide whether or not to “blind taste”

Blind tasting involves brown-bagging the bottles so no one knows the identity of the wines until the bottles are revealed. Blind tasting can be a valuable experience for tasters at any level of expertise. For novice tasters, it requires suspending preconceived notions of likes and dislikes, providing a chance to expand your tastes. For advanced tasters, blind tasting helps avoid prejudices and expectations and helps improve your ability to guess a wine’s identity. But blind tasting isn’t the only way to go. There’s just as much merit—and a total lack of pressure—in knowing what you’re tasting.

Horizontal vs. vertical tastings

You may have heard the terms horizontal and vertical associated with wine tastings. Both are effective ways to explore wines.  

Horizontal tastings consist of wines from the same grape variety and vintage from producers within a certain region (1999 Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley). Or the focus can be as broad as from around the world (1999 Pinot Noir from Oregon, Burgundy, and California). Horizontal tastings are especially helpful for beginners who want to learn about a certain grape variety or region in the context of a single harvest.  

Vertical tastings consist of several different vintages of the same wine from the same producer (for example, 1990, ’91, 92, ’93, and ’94 vintages of Château Margaux). A vertical tasting is especially good for advanced tasters, and it’s probably the best way to learn about a particular winemaker and how his or her style has evolved over a given period of time. There’s also no better way to get a “snapshot” of each vintage in reference to a specific region or vineyard. The only drawback to a vertical tasting is the potentially high cost of buying older vintages.

Set a limit of six to eight wines

Once you’ve chosen the theme for your tasting, it’s time to select the wines. When choosing wines for a tasting, set wine critics’ ratings and numerical scores aside. Instead, focus on the wines that will interest you and your tasting group the most.  

Settle on a budget and have everyone in the group pitch in. (And if members of the tasting group actually have wine cellars, don’t hesitate to have them bring a bottle if it jibes with the theme of the tasting.) Limit the number of wines to about six or eight—unless you’re a very seasoned or professional taster, palate fatigue, as it’s known in the trade, can quickly set in if more than six wines are tasted. And as with everything else, moderation is key.

Set up with a few simple items

Wineglasses needn’t be expensive crystal (but they shouldn’t be plastic disposables or jelly jars, either). Basic wineglasses will almost always do, unless you’re hosting a vertical tasting of rare wines. (See A Guide to Buying Stemware.) Generally, the higher the quality of wines tasted, the better the glassware needed. If you’re hosting a crowd, rent durable glasses from a party rental company—just be sure they don’t have any detergent residue. Or, ask your guests to bring their own glassware (so you won’t be left with a kitchen full of dirty glasses).
Spit buckets, also called dump buckets, can be as simple as large paper or plastic cups for each taster or large cardboard takeout buckets, spaced at intervals on the table. Tasting and spitting isn’t just for professionals—it’s good practice for anyone reviewing more than a few wines in one sitting. Spitting also greatly reduces the odds of your tasting devolving into a bacchanal.
Crackers or bread (I like sliced baguettes) are essential to refresh your palate between wines. Any serious eating, however, should be saved until after the serious tasting has been completed.
Tasting mats help everyone keep track of the wines they’re tasting. You can make them easily from 81¼2×11-inch paper with the names of the wines clearly printed on them, leaving enough space for each glass.
Note pads and pens are handy for taking notes you can refer to later on.
Water glasses and water pitchers to help each guest refresh his or her palate between wines.

Cardboard beer or soft drink cartons double as handy wineglass carriers.
White paper tasting mats provide the best background for examining a wine’s color.

Keep it relaxed but focused

As both a tasting leader and participant, I find that things go most smoothly if the host or someone else leads everyone through the tasting, keeping in mind that the tasting oughtn’t take the format of a serious lecture. If more expertise is desired, bring in someone from the wine industry to lead the tasting. Wineries, wine distributors, and wine shops are all good sources for finding a skilled tasting leader.

Tasting wine engages all your senses

Sight—one of the most overlooked parts of wine tasting. Hold your glass at a 45-degree angle on a white background. Look for:
• Clarity. The wine should be free of particles or sediment.
• Brightness. Most wines are filtered and thus brilliant. But more and more winemakers are choosing not to filter their wines. An unfiltered wine appears a bit hazy.
• Color. The intensity of the color of a wine is usually a good indicator of concentration and even of quality. A deeply colored red wine will almost always be more concentrated—and more tannic—than a lighter red.
• Age. White wines gain color as they age; reds lose color as they age. Both take on orange or brown hues as they age.
• Legs. Viscous, clingy “legs” or “tears” indicate how light- or full-bodied the wine is; you can see these by tilting the glass back and forth. Thicker, clingier legs indicate a higher level of alcohol or residual sugar in the wine.

Smell—the most important aspect of tasting wine
. Put your nose part way into the glass and take one long, gentle sniff or several short sniffs. Look for:
• Fault factor. Is the wine well made and free of faults? If it smells off (vinegar? sulfur? moldy cardboard?), it will taste off.
• Fruit. Different varieties tend to smell like different fruits: Sauvignon Blancs like grapefruit, Chardonnays like green apples and pears, and Cabernet Sauvignon like black cherry.
• Earthiness. Wines from France, Italy, and Germany tend to have a more pronounced earthy quality, while wines from California, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand tend to be more fruit-forward.
• Oak aging. Aromas like smoke, toast, baking spices, and toffee are all derived from aging the wine in oak barrels.
• Age. Young wines smell vibrant and full of fresh fruit. Older wines develop “bottle bouquet,” or secondary flavors of leather, spice box, tobacco, and earth.

Taste —should confirm what you’ve already seen and smelled in the wine
. Take a sip, drawing in just enough air to make a slight slurping noise. This sloshes the wine all over the inside of the mouth, intensifying the flavors. Look for:
• Fruit, earth, and wood. These should confirm what you’ve just smelled in the wine. Everything there? Any surprises?
• Dryness vs. sweetness.
• Body or mouth-feel. How light or heavy is the wine in your mouth?
• Acidity. Acids in wine give a tart, puckering sensation. A good level of acidity is needed to balance any wine, to give it the ability to age, and to make it pair well with food.
• Tannins. Tannins create the same taste sensation as the bitterness of overly brewed tea and come from grape skins or from the wooden barrels in which wine is often aged. Tannin is also needed to balance most wines.
• Age: Younger wines are more aggressive and direct in flavor, while older wines tend to be more layered, subtle, and complex.
• Finish. How long do the wine’s flavors linger after you swallow? The general rule is the longer the finish, the better the wine—regardless of what the wine is or how much it costs.

To examine wine visually, hold the glass at a 45-degree angle on a white background.
To evaluate scent, put your nose part way into the glass and take one long, gentle sniff or several short sniffs.

Pour small portions and take time to think and discuss

A two- to three-ounce pour is the rule for formal tasting, and a 750-milliliter bottle of wine will easily serve six tasters with some left over for later.  

Allow your guests at least five minutes to evaluate each wine. This should be enough time to taste the wine several times and make complete notes. Afterwards, initiate a discussion about each wine, including personal likes, dislikes, and overall impressions. Scoring the wines in order of preference can be fun, especially if the wines are being tasted blind: Each taster ranks the wines in order of preference, with a score of “1” as the highest mark. After totaling the scores, the wines are unbagged—and invariably, there are surprises.

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