The Purpose of Wine Tasting
Wine tasting, like any learned skill, is developed by applying a little knowledge, time, effort and experience. Every bottle of wine is unique, an individual personality to explore. But each wine has a common thread, a set of similarities that form layers, the basis for the wine. Understanding these common factors and knowing how they interact will make wine tasting more enjoyable. French enologist Emile Peynaud, world renown for his wine expertise, stated it most eloquently in his book.
The Taste of Wine:
"Great wine has that marvelous quality of immediately establishing communication between those who are drinking it. Tasting it at table should not be a solitary activity and fine wine should not be drunk without comment. There are few pleasures which loosen the tongue as much as that of sharing wine, glass in hand. In essence it is easy to describe what one senses provided one has made a sufficient effort to notice it. What is clearly perceived can be clearly expressed."
Planning a Wine Tasting Party Determine the Purpose:
A successful wine tasting party has a clear purpose or intent. If you can complete this sentence: "The purpose of this wine tasting is to .....," you will be able to create the proper mind set for the tasting. For example, your purpose may be "... to taste each guest's favorite wine," or "... to compare 2009 Chardonnays grown in the Alexander Valley." By understanding the purpose, each taster will know what characteristics to look for, mentally preparing them for the aromas and flavors.
Select the Wine:
Choosing the wines to taste will be fairly easy once you have a clear tasting purpose. There are two ways to provide wines: either you supply them, or ask your guests to bring one bottle each (or per couple). The latter is far more cost effective, but gives you less control over which wines are tasted. These are some common ways to specify the wines for the tasting: Each person (couple) brings their favorite wine. Each person (couple) brings a specific varietal or style of wine (Chardonnay, French, Central Coast, etc.).
You provide a list of wines and your guests sign up to bring them. You provide the wines. The process you select really depends on the guests and the purpose of the tasting.
Choose the Location:
Once your purpose is clear, determine where to have the tasting. The most likely place is your home or that of a fellow taster, but don't overlook an outdoor tasting, such as at a park or picnic area (be sure wine is allowed). Also, you want the setting comfortable, clean, and free of nuisances, particularly strong smells and insects. Likewise, don't use strong deodorizers or incense in your home prior to a wine tasting, since that could interfere with smelling the wines.
Get the Supplies:
There are few items you will need to hold a successful wine tasting party, partly from necessity, and partly to reiterate the purpose of the gathering. For each taster, you will need: one 6 oz. or larger clear wine glass a water glass, half of a sheet of unlined white paper, and an 8 oz. paper cup.
In addition, you will need a large pitcher of water for rinsing glasses and sipping between wines, a large vase of bucket for dumping excess wine, and some water crackers or French bread for cleaning the palate. It is best not to serve food during the wine tasting unless you are doing a Food Pairing Tasting, where the dishes served are meant to complement the wines tasted (and vice versa).
Make a Tasting Agenda:
In a business meeting, the members must focus on a set of specific topics, so written agendas are used to organize the group and keep them on task. The same holds true for a wine tasting. It doesn't have to be fancy, but even a short outline including the purpose of the tasting and the tasting steps will provide structure. Remember, this may be the first wine tasting party your guests have attended.
The Wine Tasting Process
Wine tasting has a process, a set of standardized procedures that let you to identify key characteristics of wine. If you are new to wine tasting, they may seem odd or snobbish, but they have evolved over centuries as the best way to gather sensory data from wines.
Observing the Wine. Pour 2 ounces of wine in the glass. It is best to hold it by the stem, not the bowl; your hand will hide your view of the glass, and may warm the wine too much.
Red Wine: Color is best seen by tilting the glass and looking at the wine through the rim. Look for variation from the deepest part of the liquid to its edges.
Intensity, the depth of color, is best judged by looking straight down through the glass from above.
Clarity, degree to which sediment or particles are visible, is most obvious when a light shines through the side of the glass.
White Wine: Hold the half sheet of white paper behind the glass as a color reference, and to assess the wine's clarity.
Red and White:
Swirl the glass. "Legs" or "Tears" may appear to run down the inside of your glass. They are a sign of high surface tension, caused by a combination of alcohol and glycerin content. There is much debate whether they are useful in judging the quality of a wine.
Smelling the Wine. You’ve just finished swirling the glass, the tears are falling, so what now? It's time to sniff.
Swirl the wine to aerate it. This causes vapors from the wine to rise.
Put your nose right into the glass (not in the wine!) and inhale deeply. You made need to swirl and sniff several times.
Describe the aromas. Red wines often possess aromas of smoke, cherries, chocolate, mint, tea, tobacco, leather, bell peppers, and a variety of other earthy smells.
White wines may exhibit flowers, pineapple, fresh apples, mown grass, or similar crisp aromas.
Wine aromas are broken into two broad categories: "Nose" is a term describing smells developed from the grape and the fermentation process.
Boutique describes aromas developed through the aging process, either in barrels or in the bottle. Most wines have many layers of aromas, and learning to identify them will help you better understand and appreciate wine. Just as with color, wines aromas offer insights into character, origin and history.
Tasting the Wine. After looking, swirling, and sniffing, you’re ready to drink the wine, right? Well, not just yet. There is a correct form to tasting wine, a technique designed to break the sip into flavor components that you can identify, contemplate, and eventually recall.
Sip about 1/2 of your wine. While holding some of the wine on your tongue, purse you lips and draw in air over the wine (think backwards whistling) to produce a slurping, gurgling sound. While this technique may not make you popular at dinner parties, it is crucial for vaporizing the volatile compounds in the wine.
Swirl, sniff, and then sip the other half. Swish it around your mouth much like mouthwash. Chewing the wine will further break down the flavors and intensify them.
Spit out most of the wine, but slowly swallow a small amount.
Exhale gently through your mouth and nose. The aromas will linger well beyond the swallow. Better wines will have more complexity and their flavors will last longer. Each area of your mouth recognizes different flavor components.
Tannin, the chemical in wine that causes a pucker sensation in some wines, is most prominent on the inside of your cheeks.
Alcohol feels hottest at the back of your throat.
Mouth-feel is a term often used to describe how a wine feels in your mouth. Wine flavors, like aromas, are impacted by the berries (grapes), the fermentation process, and aging. Flavors such as cherry, cassis, chocolate, pepper, (common in red wines) and apple, pineapple, grass, lemon (found in many white wines) are usually associated with the grapes themselves. Fermentation can add flavors such as musk, yeast, jam, and cherry pie. Smoke, oak, or sherry-like flavors often result from cask or bottle aging. Aging also softens the tannins in wine, making it smoother tasting.
Keep in mind that you are "tasting," not "drinking" wine. It is quite possible, and even likely that if you drink all the wine poured, you will end up intoxicated. Taste responsibly. Don't allow guests who are obviously drinking all the wine to drive. Professional wine tasters spit out most of the wine poured. That's what the paper cup and dump bucket are for.
Putting it all Down
So, you defined your purpose, made the agenda, poured the wine, eyed, sniffed, and then tasted the wine.
Now what? This is the most fun part of a wine tasting party.
Share your impressions and ideas with each other.
Ask questions: What did you like? Dislike? Did you taste cherries? Mint?
If you taste or smell something you can't identify, try to describe it. Frequently, another guest will have noticed it as well, and put a name to it.
Take written notes, preferably in a Wine Journal, so you can use it for future reference.
By experiencing new wines, following a clear tasting process, and recording observations, you and your guests will grow in wine tasting skill. Greater exposure to more wines lets you feel more confident when shopping for wine or ordering at a restaurant. There is also a great personal satisfaction that first time you taste a wine, recognize the flavors and aromas, and correctly identify the grape without seeing the bottle! Most of all, it will enhance your enjoyment of wine and of life, which is the true purpose of wine tasting.