by Anthony Enright
Nothing brings a wine lover more pleasure than sharing a few choice bottles with friends; for me it’s only in the act of sharing that my love of wine really comes alive and has meaning. Some of the best moments in my life have occurred over a bottle of wine, and the pleasure of learning and sharing just never gets old. One of the best ways to share wine with friends is through a tasting, but lately there seems to be a disturbing trend among some wine lovers to turn what should be a jovial event into some kind of competitive marathon. The culprit? Blind tasting! For the uninitiated, blind refers to tastings where the specific wine is not identified but rather evaluated ‘blind’ to eliminate bias. In theory this is a great idea, and makes a sense for professional tasters and those in the wine industry as it can remove the expectations that come with provenance and expense and level the playing field to just the juice in the glass. For the casual wine taster though, blind tasting can quickly devolve into an exercise in pretension and one upsmanship that seems to suck the life out of an otherwise fun experience. So there’s my bias, no blind tasting unless you’ve passed your Master Sommelier test! But enough about what not to do, below are some tips on what to do if you’re interested in hosting a fun and educational tasting for friends of all levels of expertise.
You’re going to need a theme, and this could take a while. One classic tasting theme would be the ‘Vertical’ which consists of tasting the same wine from a number of different vintages to identify similarities and variations by year. This is a great idea, but really hard to accomplish in practice as wine has a limited retail life, and you would likely have to plan for years to make a reasonable Vertical tasting happen. Much easier to accomplish is a ‘Horizontal’ tasting where wines that share some essential characteristics (i.e., 2009 Sonoma County chardonnays or 2007 rioja reservas) are evaluated together. A third type of tasting that I’m fond of is based on “Style.” Unless you have a pretty huge wine knowledge this one will take some advice at the wine shop to assemble, but it is a rewarding and illuminating exercise. The idea here is to get a number of wines made from the same varietal but in different styles (think a plush California chardonnay alongside a steely Chablis) to explore how fully the winemaker process affects the character of the wine. This type of tasting is particularly good for wine novices as it can open their eyes to the importance of regional and stylistic differences over varietal. No matter what theme you pick, try to limit your selections to 5 to 6 wines, any more than that will fatigue the palate and make tasting difficult (plus everyone gets really hammered).
All the experts will tell you not to eat when you taste as it affects your ability to evaluate. Okay, that’s true, but it’s also really boring. One of the most interesting things about wine is how it interacts with food, so I say feel free to serve a variety of small bites before and even during the tasting. One caveat would be to try to tailor the food to your wine selections and don’t serve anything that clashes too heavily. A selection of (not too stinky or pungent) cheeses along with some cured meats and olives matches well with most wines and won’t clash too terribly. If you’re serious about getting the full tasting experience consider serving a light dinner or snacks before the tasting rather than during.
You’ll need a glass for each participant, make sure it has a large bowl and a thin rim to allow for proper tasting. You’ll also need something to write on (and with) for each guest (there are handy tasting sheets available online that you can print if you want to go that far). For cleansing the palate between wines you’ll need water glasses and a pitcher of ice water. I prefer to display all the wines so if you’re trying to keep white wines cold you may need a tub of ice, for reds just open them and line them up so your guests can get a good look at each. A table that fits all your guests with a white tablecloth is ideal, but if you can’t swing that just let your guests mingle and give everyone a white napkin to help them evaluate the color of the wine against. Some people provide a bucket allowing their guests to rinse their glasses and pour them out before the next taste, it’s a fine idea, but I think a bit unnecessary provided you have water to cleanse your palate and all my friends just drink their glasses dry.
Once everyone has settled and is ready to begin, take some time to introduce your theme. This gives everyone some context and helps focus the group’s attention so they know what they’ll be drinking.
2. First Sample
Start by introducing and pouring your first wine, and walk the group through a typical tasting process. Encourage everyone to take notes and be sure to engage people in discussion about each wine.
Hold the glass at an angle and examine the wine’s color and intensity. Is it a deep red, a pale gold? Is the color saturated or does the wine look watery around the rim/edges? Does it look thick and viscous or thin and watery?
Place the glass on the table and swirl it to release the wine’s aromas, then bring it up to your nose and inhale. What does the smell remind you of? It may be helpful to close your eyes at this point to help focus your attention on what you smell. If you can’t quite pin down what you’re smelling, go through a list of fruits, herbs, vegetables, and other flavors in your head: cherry, melon, plum, peach, apple, pineapple, citrus, raisin, mint, cinnamon, green pepper, sandalwood etc. Mentally listing and remembering flavors and scents can help you find additional nuance in the wine as you evaluate.
Take a sip of wine and swish it around your mouth without swallowing. Think about what flavors you taste as well as the wine’s acidity and sweetness. Also consider the wine’s body and texture: Is it light or heavy? Thick or thin? If you’re sampling red wine, think about the tannin level (tannins produce that drying mouth feel). Again, you may want to close your eyes to focus on what you’re tasting.
Swallow the wine and think about its finish and aftertaste. Does the flavor linger for a long time or disappear quickly? Is the wine one-dimensional with flavors that seem simple, or more complex with evolving flavors?
Do you like this wine? Try to identify exactly what you like or dislike, as that can help you identify wines you’ll enjoy in the future. Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers—it’s a matter of personal preference.
8. Next Samples
In between each sample, be sure everyone cleanses their palate with ice water.
For subsequent wines, you can lead the group through the formal tasting process (helpful for inexperienced tasters). But, if you think your group would prefer, feel free to let everyone taste on their own. Don’t be too invasive, let the group find their own pace.
9. Final Discussion
Once all the wines have been sampled, lead the group in a discussion about all the wines. If you’re so inclined, you can have everyone vote for their favorite and rank the wines in terms of preference.
You don’t have to be an expert to host a wine tasting, nor do you need to spend a small fortune. If you make your theme very clear you can even ask selected guests to help supply bottles so you spread the expense around. Even of you don’t follow any of the rules above, just grab some related wines and open them with people you enjoy talking to, I promise you won’t regret it.