A well-designed tasting is a great way to learn about wine. This article is useful especially for people who are looking to learn about wine in a group setting.
1. Gather your wine stuff
- Choose clear, plain glasses without any patterns on them. You can simply go with what you have or buy something similar to the glasses in the picture above. It is best if the glasses have somewhat of a tulip shape where they are wider at the bottom of the bowl than the top. They don’t need to be especially big or expensive and you don’t need different types of glasses for different styles of wine.
- Plan on having a separate glass for each wine you will be tasting so that you can compare the wines to each other during the tasting. So, if you are tasting 6 wines, each taster will need 6 glasses set in front of them. Alternatively, you can ask people to bring their own set of glasses.
- Make sure that the glasses are clean and free of any detergent smells on the day of the tasting.
- A good corkscrew that you can use easily
- Water crackers or other neutral bread/crackers for palate cleansing
- A wet-erase marker to number your glasses (optional)
- Paper wine bags if you are planning to taste blind (optional).
2. Decide on a venue
- Natural daylight is ideal. If natural light is not available, a well-lit room should be fine.
- It is best to have a table that can accommodate everyone’s tasting glasses and notebooks.
- Make sure that there are no smells in the room such as cooking smells from the kitchen or perfume of one of your guests. Wine aromas are subtle and get overpowered easily.
- Have a white surface that you can use to hold the wine against and see the color clearly. A white table cloth is good but not necessary. You can simply use a white sheet of paper or a white napkin to hold against the glass.
3. Invite your crew
- Decide on how many people to invite. 4-8 people is generally a good number. Your final number will depend on how many tasters can be accommodated in the space, how many glasses are available and how much you’d like to spend per person.
- Make sure that the invitees have similar goals in learning as you do. If your purpose for this tasting is education, everyone needs to be committed, if it is more entertainment, then invite like-minded folk.
- If you’ll be sharing the costs, agree on a budget for the wines with the other tasters, making clear, how much each taster needs to contribute.
4. Buy your wines
Decide on a theme and the variety of wines within that theme, then make a list of wines to buy. There are many themes you can work with. If your group consists mostly of beginners, stay with a simple theme such as a tasting of major whites or major reds. In general, 4-6 wines is sufficient to cover most themes.
A few suggestions for a theme:
- Major red varieties: compare well-known red varietals such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec etc.
- Major white varieties: compare well-known white varietals such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc etc.
- Old World vs. New World:
- A California Pinot Noir vs. a French one
- An Australian Shiraz vs. a French Syrah
- A German Riesling vs. a Washington State Riesling etc.
- Same variety, different origins:
- Pinot Noirs from California, Oregon, Burgundy, Chile
- Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, California, Loire Valley etc.
- Same origin, different varieties:
- A tasting of French wines with a red Burgundy, a red Bordeaux, a Côte-Rôtie, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape
- Napa Valley wines with a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel etc.
- A specific vintage or a comparison of vintages:
- A study of the 2015 vintage in Bordeaux
- A comparison of 2010 and 2015 in Barolo etc.
Buying the wines:
Go to your local store with your list, let them know what your budget is and ask them to recommend a few classic producers that make a typical style of each wine you’d like to buy. Explain that you are not necessarily looking for the most popular, or the best tasting wines but the most typical examples of each type of wine. For example, for a Burgundy, a deeper-colored, fuller-bodied style may be their best seller but the typical red Burgundy style is a lighter, more elegant wine and that’s the one you want to buy.
5. The day of the tasting
- Set the tasting table with wine glasses, a water glass and a spittoon for each taster. Remember to provide some drinking water and some neutral crackers or bread.
- Use your wet-erase marker to number the base of your glasses. This is an optional step but one that makes it very easy to go from wine to wine for comparison.
- It is important not to overwhelm your palate. Open and order your wines in a way that un-oaked wines with less ripe, more subtle flavors to be tasted first, and the more concentrated wines with oak aromas or bold flavors to be tasted last.
- If you will be tasting the wines blind (that is, without knowing what they are), place them into identical bags and number them.
- Pour a small amount of wine into the glasses, around 1.5 – 2 oz. per person. There should be enough room in the glass so that it can be swirled comfortably but also enough wine so that the aromas can be felt. Refer to the picture below for a visual guide.
- Fill all the glasses at the same time, instead of pouring and tasting wines one by one. That will help you compare and contrast the wines more easily.
- Have your notepads ready.
Tasting the wines:
- While moving through the wines, make sure to leave some wine in each glass so that you can go back and forth for comparison.
- Keep it simple. The purpose of the tasting is not to be able to list the highest number of descriptors or the most unusual fruit names, but to be able to describe each wine and understand how it fits the general theme among the other wines in the line-up. Feel free to use the simple plan below.
- Appearance – Is the wine cloudy or clear? Is the color light or dark?
- Nose – Does it smell fruity, floral, vegetal, spicy, oaky? Are the aromas powerful or subtle? How does it compare to the other wines’ aromas in the line-up?
- Palate – Is there any sweetness? Is the acidity high/low? Is the body full/light? For red wines, are the tannins high/low?
- Finish – How long do the pleasant tastes and aromas stay in the mouth?
- It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong with the above assessments, especially in the beginning. By going through the exercise, you’re training your mind and your palate to pay attention to the wine’s most discerning aspects which is a big first step in learning about wine.
- You might also want to note how much you like each wine and whether you thought it was a good value for its price for future buying reference. If you are like most tasters, you’ll find that your tastes change and evolve as you taste more wine in time. It is fun to score each wine with a date on it and then compare it to your score of the same wine at a later date.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Do I need to drink water between the wines?
Generally no. It is a good idea to rinse your palate with water and to have a piece of neutral cracker or bread when going from a strongly flavored wine to a more subtle one. For example, you might want to do that if you are tasting a dry wine after a sweet wine or a lighter bodied white wine after a big, oaky red wine. But if you constantly rinse your mouth through the tasting, you’ll find it more difficult to compare the wines accurately.
2. At what temperature should I serve the wines?
Since you’ll be tasting all the wines together, inevitably all the wines will end up at room temperature in a short time. Still, you might want to chill and even a little bit overchill the whites before the tasting. If your tasting environment is somewhat warm, you can slightly chill the reds as well.
3. Do I need to decant the wines?
If you have some wines that will be very hard to taste without decanting, then yes. That would be something like a young Barolo or a young concentrated Bordeaux etc. If you have more than one wine to be decanted but have, say, only one decanter, you can go with double-decanting – emptying the wine into a decanter, letting it sit for a few minutes and then pouring the wine back into its original (rinsed) bottle.
4. What should I and my group conclude from a tasting?
The conclusion of the tasting will depend on your theme. If your theme was ‘major white varieties’, you may come to the conclusion that Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are both high in acidity, and Sauvignon Blanc has more of a grassy character; if it was a single varietal theme such as ‘Pinot Noir’ you may find that the Pinot Noirs from California have higher alcohol and riper flavors than those from France etc. You don’t have to work on a lot of details in the beginning. Keep your observations simple and note them down. If you keep doing this regularly, you’ll be amazed at your progress even in a short time.