The sun was shining on a summer day as I stood outside sipping a glass of wine at a picnic. It was the kind of hot day when the condensation on a glass of white wine quickly trickles down the stem.
Naturally, someone commented on the flavor of the wine, and the next thing you knew we were deep in a conversation about what kinds of foods to pair with it and things to smell with it (like liquid smoke, to pull out the smoky flavors, and wet rocks, to accentuate the minerality).
One friend suggested that while most people sample several different types of wine at a wine tasting (perhaps someone is hosting and everyone brings their favorite bottle, or a group samples a wine flight at a restaurant or a vineyard), the best way to really get to know a wine is to sample it along with several bottles of the same kind of wine.
What else was there to do but get some friends together to begin this journey of greater wine appreciation?
Five wine tastings later, I can suggest a few key tips for hosting your own wine tasting:
01. Determine the “type” of tasting you’re hosting.
Are you and your guests trying to decide if you like Pinot Grigio better than Chardonnay, or are you trying to decide what year of grapes or what wine label makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon?
If you want to try different types of wine, decide if you’re tasting reds or whites, or both. Then assign a varietal of wine (wine made from one—or mostly from one—variety of grape) to each of your guests. For example, one guest could bring Pinot Grigio, another Merlot, and so forth.
If you want to try one particular type of wine, choose the type, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio, and then buy five or six bottles of it. Buy from different wineries and vintages (the year the wine was made), and at different price points.
With both tastings, you and your guests can choose to be as extravagant or thrifty as you’d like. My friends and I normally go with a range of prices from $5 to $25 a bottle. (Try keeping the prices secret until the end. I’ve learned that the most expensive bottles are not always the favorites!)
02. Select your bottles.
Your guests—or you!—may want a little help choosing wine. Here are a few tips; share them in your invitation or take them with you to the store.
- Find a liquor or wine store in the area to buy your wine from. People who work in liquor stores often have a good knowledge of what they have in stock, especially the tiny local shops. Not only do they have wisdom to offer about wine, but they are also more than happy to answer questions and can give you better insights on the wine than you would get from simply reading the label.
- Look for bottles from all over the world to really get a sense of what flavors can be captured from the soil of different areas. Clay soil, for instance, is apt to retain water and maintain a cooler temperature. Vines from a vineyard with more clay in the soil usually yield a more full-bodied, tannic, and dark-colored wine. In contrast, sandy soils hold on to heat and drain easily, which results in a light-colored wine with lower acidity and tannins.
- Climate also has an effect; for example, when the Syrah grape (also known as Shiraz) is grown in a warmer climate, you will get a full-bodied wine with flavors bursting with juicy fruit and hints of spice. When the same grape is grown in a cooler climate you will taste a wine that is less fruit-forward, with more spice and earthy notes.
03. Plan your spread.
- Buy wine-markers that are appropriate for the wine you are tasting. Wine-markers are the kinds of foods you will want to smell before and after you taste the wine. For example, Syrah wine is usually bursting with the flavors of black and blue fruits like plums, blackberries, blueberries, and black cherries. You might also get hints of black pepper, smoke, and cacao.
Try putting these ingredients into a small glass or jar and then sniff them just before tasting the wine. Can you pull out the flavors in the wine that you smell from the wine-marker? What comes out the most, the black cherry or the blackberry, the pepper or the smoke? Then repeat with a new wine of the same variety. Can you pull out different flavors when you try different bottles?
If you are not sure what kind of wine-markers to buy with a particular bottle of wine, this is a good time to read the label! Often wine labels will have a brief description of what flavors you will taste in each sip.
- Provide appetizers that pair well with the wine. Syrah packs a punch, and the food that you pair with it should do the same. Juicy and savory meats are great choices to eat alongside Syrah, but this wine also goes well with mushrooms, grilled vegetables, and hard, aged cheeses like smoked gouda.
A great online resource that I use to help me determine what to pair wine with is wine-searcher.com. You can type in a specific brand and type of wine and it will give you information about how much a bottle costs and what region the wine is from, as well as a food suggestion to pair it with.
- You may notice that white wine is typically poured in a glass with a smaller bowl. This is because it helps the wine to maintain a cool temperature while also pulling out the acidity in the wine. It is also best to hold white wine by the stem to keep it cold.
Red wine glasses have a larger bowl, which allows the wine to breathe more easily. When you drink red wine, feel free to wrap your hand right around the bowl—red wine isn’t at a risk of getting too warm. Don’t worry too much about your glasses, though; you can have a wine tasting using any size and shape. What is most important is to have enough glasses for everyone!
04. Set the mood for the tasting.
It’s important to encourage your guests to have fun learning! Wine tasting can have a negative connotation for being pretentious, but as a friend once told me told me, in order to taste wine, all you have to do is taste. What do you taste?
Don’t be afraid to have fun with the vocabulary—whether you are a wine expert or not, it’s exciting to learn new terms to use when smelling and tasting wine. Is the wine “acidic,” with a sour and sharp flavor? Or is it “tannic,” making you pucker your lips after each sip? Maybe it tastes better after being swirled around in your glass to allow it to open up and aerate. Some of my favorite red wines are “oaky” and give off flavors of toast, vanilla, cedar and smoke, or they are “spicy” with a taste of cloves or black pepper.
Enjoy being naive and laughing at yourself when you come up with impressive words for the aroma, body, and finish of a given wine. The most important thing about tasting wine is to have fun. After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.”