Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine
August 12, 2022
Wine tastings have a broad array of aims. Proper wine tastings provide an excellent opportunity to learn about vintages, winemaking styles or single grape varieties. Or, all of the above and all at once!
Group tastings can also deliver the opposite experience.
One of the least useful experiences in wine tasting is being given a wine such as a Chenin Blanc from Napa Valley completely blind. Unless your tasting is specifically of unusual wines, there's not much to do with this other than hone your tasting deduction work. Unfortunately, all too often we learn we've been given an outlier after we have spent a significant amount of time trying to deduce what it is and sometimes shoe-horning it into a more classic category.
Years ago, I walked into a big, Saturday night get-together of friends. I was handed a glass with zero context, and this highly atypical wine (yes, it was a Napa Chenin Blanc) was being poured directly from the freezer (overly chilled). What was the point? My hosts thought they were helping me train my palate for the Master of Wine tasting exam. Really? Come on now! The dozen people gathered seemed primed for some sort of game show spectacle, and I had to promptly squash that optimism and call out my hosts on the less-than-optimal set-up.
Proper wine tastings have a theme and purpose. Playing "stump the chump" translates into time, money and opportunity wasted. Tiptop wine pros absolutely can deduce wines’ grape varieties, regions of origin, vintages, winemaking methods and – sometimes, though rarely – vineyards and producers. Yet even on a good day, blind tasting remains very humbling for even the most discerning palate.
For whatever kind of tasting you organize, it is worth doing it well. While the tasting parameters here specifically are for sit-down tastings, most of the principles would apply to a walk-around tasting as well.
Orienting a Tasting
Some wine tastings are "sighted". Tasters see the labels and vintages. These tend to be most useful when discovering a grape variety or a wine style, say a series of classic Italian white wines.
Some are "blind", meaning that only a region or a grape variety is revealed. The category could be as basic as "red wines from Bordeaux" or as specific as "Blanc de Blancs Champagnes from the 2002 vintage". There are also "double blind" tastings, like the one I describe above, where the tasters know nothing about the wines.
Tastings can also be called “deductive” as the tasters have to work out what the wines are from what they taste in the glass and - possibly - what they know about the set of wines before them. An example of the latter could be a set of six Merlot-dominant wines, each from different, classic regions around the world. The tasters' mission is to determine from where each wine hails.
Setting-Up a Proper Wine Tasting
Establish a Theme
Single blind tastings and blind, deductive tastings give participants the best chances of enjoying themselves as well as learning something because they have some frame of reference. There are boundless options for themes, such as:
“Major Red Wine Grape Varieties from the USA”:
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir
“Famous Red Wines from Around the World”:
Mendoza-Uco Valley Malbec, Rioja Gran Reserva, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru, Barossa Shiraz
“White Wines From France”:
Muscadet, Puligny-Montrachet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Alsace Pinot Gris
“A Riesling Vertical from Mosel's Wehlener Sonnenuhr Vineyard”:
Preparing the Wine Tasting Environment
Most of us don't want to taste in a clinical laboratory-style setting. However, if you are looking at older wines or an array of young to old wines, you'll want brighter light. You'll also want that light coming down onto the tops of your glasses rather than from side angles. Mood lighting is not ideal for a focused wine tasting.
It is best to look at wines against a white medium, whether a tablecloth or a tasting mat. A bright white background helps the eye focus on the color nuances in the glass. A tasting mat can be as basic as a sheet (or several) of printer paper or a plastic picnic table cloth purchased at the local dollar store. If the latter sounds inelegant, remember that so are irretrievably stained linens and any cursing that may ensue upon discovering the damage.
It may be fun to see a table so generously laden with glasses that it is hard to lift one without touching another. Alas, that set-up likely means someone will need to sprint mid-tasting for the Wine Away, kosher salt or club soda.
Allowing ample room for glasses, a spittoon, a bottle or glass of water and some note-taking paper - and the elbows required to maneuver around them - is a good way to reduce the chances of accidents and wasted wine.
No one wants to smell the after-shave someone wore they last time they put on a blazer or sit so close to someone that they can smell this morning's round at the golf course. Also remind attendees to hold off on scented grooming products and to not smoke directly prior to joining the tasting.
Similarly, if you plan nibbles or a feast during or after, make sure the aromas don't interfere with the tasting. After all the effort and money put into the tasting, the last thing you need is a stinky cheese or a simmering pot overpowering all of the gathered smell receptors.
Thinking of tasting outside? Remember that fresh air carries allergens for those that suffer from them, and breezes carry away aromas. Plus, it is harder to manage wine temperatures outside. I was once at an outdoor, evening tasting in Burgundy in November, and it was hard to smell any of the hundred or so wines - worth thousands of dollars together - as they were all far too cold.
For a serious wine tasting, it is best to stay indoors.
Considering Wine Service
Proper Wine and Room Temperatures
Following on the idea of tasting outside or, conversely, inside by a roaring fireplace, if your tasting environment turns out to be sweltering or otherwise uncomfortable for humans, the wines won't stay at their ideal tasting temperatures for long either. To focus properly on tasting, it is best that people feel comfortable so that their attention remains on the wines, not their surroundings.
As for the wines themselves, proper wine tasting temperatures (preferences for drinking temperatures can vary wildly, and that is perfectly fine) are around 50° F for light whites and pale rosés, 55-60° F for richer whites and darker rosés and 60-65° F for reds. Keep in mind that wines warm up once out of the fridge or ice bucket, and especially once they are in a tasting glass surrounded by ambient air temperature. If your group leans to the nerdy side, use an instant read thermometer to make sure your wines are in their ideal temperature range at the time of service.
Tasting Order and Flights
Tasting order makes a big difference, even if tasters feel confident that they can power through whatever is in front of them.
If there are a lot of wines or there are multiple styles of wines, take the time to schedule the time for each flight as well as the time required to prep each flight (cutting foils, popping corks, numbering bottles and glasses, etc.)
Taste All Wines in the Same Wine Glasses
It is ideal for everyone to taste all of the wines (at least those in a single flight) at once and in the same glass style. If necessary, taste in flights but all in the same glasses. Much has been made of tasting wines in different glasses for a reason. The glass should be minimized as a variable in the tasting experience, and the glass used should optimize the tasting experience.
Does this sound like too many glasses to wash post-tasting? There are clear, stemless, thin-lipped and disposable glasses available online for as little as $1.25 a glass. They are the perfect size for a tasting portion of wine, and they can be tossed into the recycling bin when the tasting is over. Some can also be washed in the top rack of a dishwasher to reuse. They certainly are not as desirable as crystal, but this is a decent compromise if the number of wines or number of tasters requires it.
I have seen people who self-identify as geeky collectors bring motley assortments of glasses to tastings at private venues and even to restaurants. It happens so often that I am no longer surprised by it. Two Zalto Burgundy glasses followed by two Riedel Cabernet Glasses followed by three random white wine glasses...all for the same vintage, region and grape variety. This does not work for serious wine assessment.
Furthermore, glass size matters. If you are pouring wine “tastes” – meaning only two or three ounces, the glass size is very, very important. Those enormous, restaurant-style glasses are fantastic for dinner. However, some of them can hold almost a whole bottle, which contains 25.4 ounces! It is usually very hard to smell wine tasting pours in these glasses.
Using smaller glasses will deliver a clearer perception of the wine overall. Plus, they are far easier to transport when you want to assure that you are tasting more consistently.
I've used the same tasting glasses for almost 20 years. They have a bowl shape with a thin lip around the rim that tapers in just slightly. Filled to their mid-point, they hold about 3.5 ounces. I occasionally experiment with others to see if there is something better out there, but so far, I haven't found anything as good as these. Mind you, I despise drinking wine from the same glasses. This is in part because the glasses make me think of work, but also in part because I prefer larger glasses for drinking so that I can pour more generously then watch the wine evolve over a longer period of time.
This is the kind of tasting glass that works for everything, including sparkling wines. Flutes are ideal for examining streams of bubbles but do little for aromatic expression. Coupes look cool and retro, but they do the wine no favors.
The wine glass volume and the number of required pours will determine the number of bottles you’ll need. I pour two ounces for a tasting with a large number of samples (perhaps three ounces for a smaller set), so I generally plan on one bottle for every twelve guests. That also leaves about an ounce and a half to taste in advance to make sure that the bottle is sound. It's a good idea to have an extra bottle on hand in case a wine is corked, heat-affected, reduced or otherwise not showing well.
Establishing Correct Wine Identifications in Advance
Did someone say that Cabernet Sauvignon was from Napa Valley but it actually was from Alexander Valley? A correct ID can depend on the context of the wines, especially on a Saturday night among friends. Were the scope Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world, I’d say someone pretty much nailed it. However, if the wine tasting is focused on Cabernet Sauvignon from California, the answer would need to be as precise as possible.
Avoiding Inadvertently-Provided Clues
It is all too easy to accidentally leave the corks in a kitchen corner where someone might see them when washing up their hands before the tasting. There are always the sneaky ones looking for any possible short cut.
Hide bottles in aluminum foil or mylar or paper bags. Also, cut off or tape up neck foils so that you don't give away valuable details. In the face of intense rivalries, pour the wines yourself. Some folks grope bottles!
If different grape varieties are spread across the tasting experience, bottle shapes may suggest what grape varieties might be associated with those different bottle shapes. For example, Rieslings typically come in flute-shaped bottles, Pinot Noirs in slope-shouldered “Burgundy bottles” and Cabernet Sauvignons in high-shouldered “Bordeaux bottles”. If the wines are young and can withstand decanting, consider using a funnel to decanting them into clean and dry empty bottles of the same type.
Here’s wishing you fun and good learning during your wine tastings! To maximize your personal experience after all of this preparation, here are two last tips: 1) the less you taste, the better your accuracy will be; 2) trust your instincts – your first guess tends to be the best.