There are many excellent reasons to host a wine tasting party—or even to form a wine club. For one thing, wine is a social beverage—one that’s meant to be shared with friends. And it’s more fun to drink than to buy Tupperware—unless, of course, you’re drinking from the Tupperware. The only goal is to enjoy yourself and perhaps find a new favourite bottle.
Although wine does lend itself to serious technical analysis, that’s not really necessary. You don’t need a Ph.D. to talk about it: anyone can share opinions about the wine. Most people just want to socialize over a good glass or two (or three); though it’s a bonus if we can learn something too. Plus, wine can also kick-start the conversation—it’s something that people can talk about, especially when they’re meeting each other for the first time.
Tasting with friends, in your home or theirs or online, is also less intimidating than going to formal events. Here's how to get started.
STEP ONE: INVITE YOUR FRIENDS
If your friends feel a wine tasting might be intimidating, this is what you tell them:
- Tasting with friends in your home is a less intimidating way to try new wines than going to formal events. You won’t have to impress anyone with your knowledge of grape varietals or terroir; you can simply enjoy yourself and find a new favourite bottle.
- Wine tastings can offer a great twist on holiday cocktail or dinner parties because they’re usually less work than setting up a full cocktail bar or preparing a large sit-down dinner.
- Tastings are also a great opportunity to help you select wines for weddings, parties and holidays.
About a month before the party you need to:
- Decide who you want to invite. Your tasting could be for existing friends or a means to get to know new friends via work or other venues. Keep the guest list relatively small. Six to 12 people is plenty.
- Set the date. Tastings can be held on weeknights though many people feel more relaxed about tasting wine on a Friday or Saturday.
- Set the time. Wine tastings take two to four hours, depending on how you’re hosting it. If you’re doing dinner, allow for up to four hours for the tasting. If you’re just doing a few nibbles, chances are it’ll be a two-hour affair.
CHOOSE A THEME
Decide whether you want to do a “vertical” or “horizontal” tasting.
- A vertical tasting takes one specific wine, such as say Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, and you’d taste various vintages ie 2016, 2015, 2014 and so on to see how the wine ages and how vintages varied with different weather conditions.
- A horizontal tasting could have say the Kim Crawford Pinot Noir from 2016, and then compare that to other New Zealand Pinots from the same vintage, or even other Pinots from other regions, like Canada and the US from 2016. This is more to illustrate the stylistic difference between the wineries when it comes to one wine all from the same vintage.
- Keeping wine variety and wine regions the same helps emphasize differences in winery styles.
- You can keep it simple and have everyone bring a memorable bottle and share its story.
- You could choose a themed party (retro wines and style it with a 70s theme or a glitter theme with various sparkling wines).
What about foods at a wine tasting? Does your food have to pair well with all of the wines?
- The food doesn’t have to be elaborate; nibbles are fine. Opt for dishes that aren’t too spicy since they can numb the palate and overwhelm the wine.
- Suggested nibbles include cheeses, nuts, salmon, and pate. Entrees include chicken in a cream or tomato-based sauce, pork, steak and pasta. Be aware that seafood can clash with red wines.
- Also, think about your theme. We’ve opted for fondue with our 70s table because it fits into the overall retro experience.
What else do we need to provide at a wine tasting?
- Make sure there’s a piece of paper or notepad and pen for each person so they can jot down tasting notes or the names of their favourite wines.
- A handy alternative is a wine mobile app like the one I created that allows you to scan the label or barcode of the wine, save it in your virtual cellar and share it on social media.
- Count on one glass per wine per person, unless you plan to reuse the glasses for different wines. Just make sure to rinse them out between each pour. Set the glassware in a row or semi-circle in front of each place.
- No one should have to swallow wine they don’t like or be forced to drink too much so make sure you include a spittoon on the table. You can use a central ice bucket for everyone or individual glasses or mugs (opaque rather than clear preserves the much-needed illusion of delicacy).
- It’s also important to make sure that everyone has a glass of water. Not only is alcohol dehydrating, but guests won’t drink as much wine if they have water to quench their thirst.
TASTING THE WINE
There are four basic things to look for when you taste wine: look, smell, taste, and finish. With each step, you’ll want to make sure you’re starting an informal discussion with the group by asking good questions.
- What do you see, smell, taste?
- Do you like the wine? Why or why not?
- Do you think it would pair nicely with a particular flavour or dish?
- Prompt your guests to take notes and write their overall impression of the wine.
THE LOOK OF THE WINE
What exactly are we looking for?
- First of all, you need good light. Candlelight isn’t ideal for judging the color of wine, but you also don’t want a harshly-lit lab-like environment.
- Look at the wine tipped on its side against a white tablecloth, or even a piece of paper, to tell how clear it is, or whether there’s anything floating in it.
- You can also see how old it is. Young whites are usually green at the edges and become a deeper yellow or gold with time; reds are usually purple or ruby in youth and turn to garnet or brick in age.
THE SMELL OF THE WINE
Yes, you’re supposed to swirl the wine in the glass but why?
- Swirling the wine draws in oxygen from the air. When wine encounters oxygen it begins to break down or “open up,” giving off its aromas.
- Since wine’s aromas are volatile, smell is considered the determining factor of wine character. In fact, we can detect more than two thousand aromas with our noses, but only five tastes in our mouths (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and a savory character called umami). Try sipping wine with your nose plugged and you’ll taste the difference.
- Ask yourself what the wine’s aromas remind you of: wood chips, cherries, apples, your Aunt Mildred’s spice cake? This is a subjective judgment that becomes sharper with time and experience.
- It’s also a good reason to ask guests to refrain from wearing perfume or cologne so there are no competing odors.
TASTE & FINISH
Now comes the tasting.
- Swirl it around your mouth and aerate it by sucking in a little air through your mouth to further enhance the taste. You may want to practice this in the shower at home first – or don’t wear white the first time you try it. J
- Think about not only what flavours you detect, but also how the wine feels in your mouth: heavy as cream, light as skim milk or somewhere in between, like whole milk?
- Finally, swallow the wine to see how long the flavour impression lasts – its finish. A long finish means you can still sense the wine in your mouth for eight seconds or more after swallowing. A medium finish is four to seven seconds and fewer than four seconds is short. The longer the finish, the better.