Ever wanted to host your own in home wine tasting but didn’t know where to start? Getting together with friends to taste wines, the possibilities are endless. At the end of this post and on my Resources page you will find handly sheets you can print out as a guide and tasting evaluation forms for both reds and whites that will help you conduct a successful tasting. You can make it as simple or involved as you want.
Some of the most popular themes I have used include:
Wines from a specific region, Appellation, or country
Wines from one vintage
Wines under $15 (or some other such price cap)
Wines that go with Chocolates
All reds or all whites
Sparkling wines, non-champagne
A wine vertical (wines from successive vintage years)
As you can see, you are only limited by your imagination. Around holidays I do tastings for Thanksgiving wines or Valentines Sparklers. I suggest limiting the wines to no more than five. Five is a good number because it makes a well-rounded sampling. People start to lose interest if there are many more than that. You can usually find sufficient foods to complement all of the wines without going overboard. You can, if you are hosting, select the theme and purchase the wines yourself, or you can discuss ahead of time with your group to get a consensus, or, and this is one of my favorites, you can ask everyone who attends to bring a wine they want to share with the group. What makes this great is that you can establish a price range but since everyone is bringing only one bottle you can usually enjoy a wine from a litle bit higher price range. If you go that route then ask the guests to be prepared to present their wine and know everything they can about that wine – beyond the label – food pairing suggestions, and why they chose to share that particular bottle.
Once you settle on your theme and everyone is on the same page figure out what will be served to go along with the wines. If you don’t know who is bringing what then stick to a couple of soft and a couple of hard or aged cheeses and crackers. This way you’ll have the bases covered. If you are selecting the wines you can prepare as simple or elaborate a spread as you want to spend time and money on, but remember that you want the wines to shine here, not the food.
Prior to the arrival of your guests print out the tips and evaluation forms. There is a lot of information to be gained by going through the process, and some people think it is a lot of work to fill in the producer, vintage, type of wine, etc, for each wine tasted but I guarantee that it’s harder than you think to try to remember after the fifth wine tasted which one you liked or disliked and why – and forget about trying to remember all that the next time you go to the wine shoop and want to find one of those wines. Many wine enthusiasts keep a wine journal just so they can keep track of wines they love, and wines they hated.
It’s best to serve the wines in simple clear glasses that are not cut crystal or patterned or have color in them. We’re evaluating wines here and we need to really see them. Many inexpensive all purpose wine glasses are available. It is not necessary to your enjoyment to have special glasses. Also, have white napkins on hands. It is essential to hold the wine against a white background to really see the color and opaqueness of the wine.
Always try to serve the wines at their proper temperature, and know that room temperature today is considered to be 68°, and this is not the room temperature that red wines should be stored and served at. Reds should be slightly cooler than room temperature but not cold. This rule of thumb was applied when the people who made wine lived in drafty castles and chateau. Whites should be chilled but not really cold for the purposes of evaluation. Wines that are too warm have an excessive alcohol taste and overpowers the more subtle aromas and flavors. Wines that are too cold numb those flavors. Many restaurants are notorious for serving their reds too warm. Often that is a result of improper storage. Many restaurants do not have a dedicated cellar space and wind up keeping their wines too close to equipment and appliances that throw off heat.
Always serve the wines you’ve chosen from whites to reds (if you’re mixing), and lightest body to fullest. If you drink a white after red or a light wine after a full-bodied wine it will taste flat and dull. The first wine you serve will have the most focus and attention on it because this is the wine where your group will learn the process of wine evaluation. And so it begins…
Pour about one inch into the glass (this is only a taste for now). Don’t do anything else at first – no swirling yet! Invite your guests to hold the glass at a 45° angle against the background of the white napkin. Take note of the clarity of the liquid. Is it brilliant, clear, hazy, or in the case of reds, is ther noticeable sediment in the glass. Note this on the evaluation form. What is the color and it’s intensity? For a white, is it gold or straw, or hay? Does it have a greenish tint or reflections? Red wines can be any hue of red from ruby and garnet to brick and be pale to inky dark.
Next we’ll investigate the smell. More than 85% of what we taste comes from our nose. If you think about it we only have four different kinds of tastebuds (actually it’s five but how many people are familiar with Umami?) and yet we manage to taste thousands of different flavors. That has everything to do with our olfactory receptors (see Post 5/16/11 on Aromas) for more on the science behind this. Ok so we haven’t swirled yet. Put your nose quite literally in the glass and taste a deep sniff and note your initial impression. What is the first thing that comes to mind? Ok, now we can swirl. If you’re new to this hold your glass by the stem (and we always hold a wine glass by the stem, and never the bowl, to avoid unnecessarily warming the wine) and rotate the glass to swirl the liquid. This opens the wine up to more air and alchol evaporation. This allows the wine’s aromas to collect in the glass. Now when you take that second sniff you should definitely notice more pronounced aromas and a greater intensity. You may also notice more and differnt aromas. Note this on the evaluation form. Remember to use the right one for whites and reds, as the aromas descriptors will be different on each.
Ooh we’re getting to the best part – taste! Sip enough of the wine to hold in your mouth and swish around. Take in some air with the wine, almost like gargling. You’ve seen the experts make all kinds of exaggerated pursing of the lips and funny sounds. They are trying to get as much air into the wine as possible so that in your mouth the aromas will excite the olfactory sensors as it wafts up through your mouth to your nose (in case you didn’t know, the back of your throuat and nasal passages are connected). This will enhance your ability to discern different flavors in the wine. There are a lot fo things to notice here before you swallow. Does the wine feel heavy on your palate or light? This is the body of the wine. the best way I have ever had it described to me is this: light wines feel like the weight of 2% milk in your mouth, medium bodied wines feel like whole milk, and full-bodies wines feel like half and half or cream. Most people can relate to the reference.Does the wine strike your palate in the front, the middle, or the back of the your mouth. When they call a wine fruit forward they are usually referring to the fact that your tastebuds in the front of your tongue sense the wine most. That usually means it is a fruity wine. Wines with a strong acid structure will be noticed by the middle of the tongue more. Companies that make wineglasses have investedi in all kinds of science to create glasses that optimize the tasting experience. While I personally love my Reidel glasses they are not a necessary component in tasting wine properly. You just need to learn the technique. If it is a red winedo you notice strong tannins? Tannins are what’s called a polyphenolic compound. They’re found in reds wines because they come from the skins and pips (seeds) of the grape and the process of making red wines keeps the juice in prolonged contact with the skin and seeds during fermentation, whereas white wines are pressed first and then fermented. So if you notice that astringent, mouth-puckering sensation then a wine is said to have a tannic structure. Young reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon are known for their tannins and may require years in bottle to soften. Tannins are one of the elements that contribute to the age-ability of a wine. The tannins in the wine are often mentioned on the label because people have strong feelings one way or the other about them and winemakers like to think having substantial tannins present in the wine makes their wine a better candidate for aging. As you drink through and learn which wines you like keep note of how you feel about the wine’s tannic structure. Along with the alcohol they contribute much to the wine’s depth and complexity. After swallowing that first sip consider what flavors come to mind and how long they seem to last on your palate. This is known as the wine’s finish. Some wines dissapate quickly and others seem to go on and on. A good quality wine will have a noticeably substantial finish.
In the end you are trying to evaluate and assess the wine overall so you want to summarize it (this is the evaluation part). You note the finish, and did the iwne seems balanced. By that I mean did it all seel harmonious in your mouth or did the acidity or tannins or some other element overpower the rest? If everything played well together in your mouth then the wine is balanced. All of your sensory observations combine will tell you (and only you) if this is a wine of quality.
So now it’s time to go out and practice.