For me, spring weather calls for two of my favorite things — parties and wine. While I almost always serve wine at my parties, occasionally I like to make wine the focus of a party, by hosting a wine-tasting party.
While once viewed as an esoteric activity for only hardcore wine aficionados, wine-tasting parties are becoming a very popular activity for wine lovers of all sorts, novices and experts alike. So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine we share some tips and advice for hosting your next (or first) such party.
Wine-tasting parties can be a delight either in or out of doors. Wherever you choose to host your party, you’ll want to make sure that the area is brightly lit, so that partygoers will be able to truly appreciate the color of each wine. You’ll also want to host the party in a place without any dominate smells (e.g. flower gardens, kitchens, etc), since background aromas may affect the guests’ ability to appreciate a wine’s bouquet.
If you plan to host your party in a public place, make sure that the party will not violate local public drinking ordinances. If you’d like to have your wine tasting party in a restaurant, contact the restaurant in advance to see if it will allow you to bring in your own wine and to ask about its corkage fee (a per bottle fee that many restaurants charge for allowing you to bring in your own wine.) As a general rule, kosher restaurants in the New York area that allow customers to bring in their own wine, will only allow mevushal wines.
When it comes to creating the menu for your wine-tasting party, you are probably going to want to stick to foods with simple and mild flavors, as complex and spicy foods can overwhelm wine. Also, as a general rule, fatty foods, such as cheese, will make a wine taste richer and smoother, and acidic foods such as fruit, will make a wine taste harsher and more acidic. (Hence the old wine trade adage “buy on apple and sell on cheese.”) However, one need not wholly eschew acidic foods, as it can sometimes be very interesting to see how the same wine will taste after, say, a sliver of brie, and then after a bite from a Granny Smith apple.
It is also important to serve some sort of a palate cleanser — something that one can eat between wines that will leave the mouth with a neutral taste. White bread, water crackers, and matzah are all good palate cleansers. In Bordeaux many wine tasters like to eat roast beef as a palate cleanser. Personally though, I have found chilled, unsalted, boiled, long-grain white rice to be the best palate cleanser.
Selecting the wines:
When it comes selecting which wines to taste, it is really a matter of anything goes. You can do a vertical tasting, in which you taste multiple vintages of the same wine; a horizontal tasting, where you taste different wines from the same winery and the same vintage; a varietal tasting, where you taste different wines made from the same type of grape; or simply a random tasting, where you taste whatever bottles you happen to have lying about.
When deciding in which order to taste the wines during a tasting, some will advocate tasting from oldest to youngest, and some vice versa. Others will advocate tasting from lightest to heaviest, or heaviest to lightest. Then there are those who advocate a random order of tasting. It is simply a matter of preference, and you should experiment to determine your preferred methodology.
Preconceptions regarding the origins, price, grape varieties, etc., of a wine can have a significant impact on how they will be perceived. To limit the effects of these preconceptions, you may want to make your tasting a blind tasting. This is easily done by taping brown paper lunch bags around each bottle, and then jotting randomly assigned numbers on each bag. Or you could make an abstaining guest the “designated pourer” and have him or her serve everyone from covered bottles. You can also turn blind tasting into a contest. Give each guest a list of the wines to be tasted, and let them try to identify in which order they were served.
To swallow or spit:
When one swallows wine, the alcohol in the wine will numb the taste buds, and after drinking more than few glasses of wine it starts to become difficult to appreciate all of the nuances of any wine. So if you’re planning to taste more than four or five different wines at your party, you may want to consider sipping each wine, rolling it about in your mouth for a minute, and then spitting it out instead of swallowing. Be warned though, it takes a bit of practice to be able to fully appreciate a wine without swallowing it. You’ll want to give each of your guests some sort of an opaque cup that can be used as a spittoon. Once the formal tasting is over, you can then go back and enjoy a glass or two of your favorites.
Some tips on tasting wine:
Tasting wine is a subject on which whole books have been written, and is a skill that can take years to master. However, what follows is a bit of general advice on analytical wine tasting.
First analyze the appearance of the wine. Make sure you have a clean, narrow-mouthed wine glass. Fill the glass a quarter to a third full, and hold it up against something white (paper works well) under white light. Try to get a sense the wine’s color. Swirl the wine around in the glass, see how rapidly the wine drips down the inner-wall of the glass in order to get a sense of the wine’s viscosity, or “legs.”
Next swirl the wine about a bit more, stick your nose into the glass, and inhale deeply. Try to figure out what the wine’s aromas remind you of smelling. Berries? Leather? Tobacco? Wood? Does the smell start to alter as the wine spends a longer time in the glass?
Now it’s time to taste. Pour some wine into your mouth and swirl it around. With the wine still in your mouth suck in a little air through clenched lips, and notice how you can taste the wine’s flavors more fully. Breathe out slowly through the nose to more fully appreciate the wines aromas. The time has now come to either spit or swallow.
Sit back and analyze the wine holistically. How well did the flavors, textures, and aromas blend together? Were they well balanced? What was most the prominent aspect of the wine? Overall, how much did you enjoy this wine?
If you like you can take notes on each wine, and if becoming a wine critic appeals, you may want to also score each wine. The most common scoring scheme used today is the 100 point scale: Each wine starts with a score of 50, and receives 1-10 points for appearance, 1-15 points for aromas, 1-15 points for taste/texture, and 1-10 points for overall balance.
The Fruit of the Vine column appears monthly.