Tips for Holding a Wine Tasting

I'll start this off with a brief description of how we conduct our wine tastings. My very first tasting was conducted with everyone having a single glass. We would try each wine, one at a time. This was great because it meant that I only had to have enough crystal glasses for each person to have one, but it makes it nearly impossible to compare and contrast the wines being tasted.

Since my first tasting, I've purchased a large number of Reidel glassware (their Ovation series, although not optimal, is at least somewhat reasonably priced.) If you've never tasted wine in Reidel stemware, I highly recommend you purchase a couple different "shapes" and try some wine. Reidel stemware is created to specifically match the type of wine you're drinking. Thus, there is a glass that is specifically made for Zinfandel, another for Burgandy, another for Bordeaux, etc. At my first tasting, I had a variety of different shaped glasses, and it was amazing to taste the exact same wine (from a single bottle) in different shaped stemware and see how it improved or detracted form the taste!

Anyway, for our tasting now, we give each person four (4) glasses. We then do a blind tasting of four wines at a time (this is called a "flight". Each wine is placed into a wine bag (I'm lucky, my mother makes these bags for me) and then the top foil (and label) is removed to ensure the wine cannot be identified. I usually like to do this well before my guests arrive so that no one but me knows which wines I'm serving. In addition, I use identical bags, so that if I wrap up the wines a couple of hours ahead of opening them, even I don't know which one is which.

Just before serving the wine, I will uncork each bottle in its bag. I try not to look at the corks, or else have someone else mix up the bags before serving them. Once the tasting begins, we pass each bottle around and pour a small amount into one of our glasses. This continues until all four wines have been passed around. (Be careful! If you've got 10+ people, and they each do a reasonably large pour, you may run out. It's always better to be conservative, and then if there is any left, have some more at the end of the round than to run out during the initial pouring.)

It's important to make sure you know which wine is which after they've been poured, so either mark the bags, or keep them lined up in the order in which they were poured. Otherwise it may be difficult to know what you've been drinking. We also keep whatever is left in the bottle available so that if someone wants to try a little more, they can.

Supplying the Wine

In my tastings, whoever is hosting the party supplies all of the wine for that party. This makes it easier to "group" the wines, and also ensures that two people don't bring the same wine. Another way to do a tasting is to pick a "theme" (e.g. Australian wines) and then have everyone in the group bring their own bottle that matches the theme. This is a fun way to sample some very different wines, some that you may not be able to find easily, or have passed over previously. Since most of the people in the group I've been tasting with know something about wine (and several know a whole lot), I find it easier to just have the host pick out 8 of their favorite wines, creating whatever theme they want to.

As I said previously, we tend to do two rounds of tasting, with four bottles in each round. This works out well for several reasons. It's usually easy to find four wines that can be served side by side, you only need four glasses per person, and it provides enough of a variety that you can really have some fun with the group.

During my first tasting, I did two sets, one Cabernet, and one Zinfandel. Although this was nice, it was also a little boring. Since then, we've done a better job of mixing up the varietals in a given group, and I'll often throw one "ringer" or "surprise" in for fun (e.g. a group of 3 Californian wines and 1 Australian, or three young reds and one bottle aged red). I would not recommend mixing red and white wine in a single group. Also, if you're going to do both a red and a white group, do the white group first.

Training your Tastebuds
One interesting thing to do before a tasting is to have people try the four different taste components. Taste is made up of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Each of these tastes is "felt" on a different part of the tongue. In order to get people to recognize this, I served small "shots" of each taste before the actual wine tasting. In small dixie cups (you don't want to taint the wine glasses), I served a small amount of water with the following ingredients added:

You need to make these strong enough for people to taste the flavor you've added, but not so strong that they can't drink it. Once people start sampling the differnt tastes, have them analyze where on their tongue they are "feeling" each taste. This will help them to identify tastes they may find in the wines as they drink them.

Other Considerations

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