I once knew a wine writer (always with a buzz on) who exulted that he’d tasted his way through 120 wines at an international exposition. Now, my job as a wine writer has its joys, but tasting my way through 120 wines, or even 80 wines, about par for a judge at a wine competition, is not one of them.
Such a slog is not only hard work but palate fatigue sets in early, so that the 46th wine you taste is never going to have quite the luster of the third, and by number 75, you are in agony and in need of a shower.
Still, the idea of holding your own wine tasting at home or in a restaurant can be one of the most convivial of pleasures, as long as you go about it the right way, starting with whom you invite.
Basically, there are three kinds of people who drink wine: those who kind of like it, those who truly love it, and those who regard it as a study in one-upmanship.
Only the second type is any fun at a wine tasting, especially if you’re going to be serving some expensive wines that the first group will shrug at and the third will sniff and go into discourses about wine pH levels and vineyard trellising techniques.
Once you’ve chosen your jolly group (please skip the black tie request!), there are certain guidelines that make such tastings a great deal of fun.
Never serve more than six wines. Fewer is hardly worth the effort and more becomes a bore.
Will it be a blind tasting? If so, cover the bottles with a paper bag to hide the labels, making sure the shape of the bottle is not evident. (Pinot noirs and rieslings always come in distinctively shaped bottles.) Number them and keep the list out of sight.
If it’s not a blind tasting, rather than have a random selection of wines, choose one region, say Tuscany, or a single estate, like Jordan cabernet. If the former, a horizontal tasting of a single vintage will give interesting insight into the differences of wines from the same region; if the latter, have a vertical tasting, that is, from different vintages of the same wine.
Use standard wineglasses for all the wines and pour only about an ounce or so to begin with. Later your guests can enjoy whatever they like most.
Have plain water available to help cleanse the palate between wines. Crackers or bread are also traditionally provided, chosen because their blandness does not interfere with the wine flavors.
But I believe it is much better to serve crackers like Saltines or focaccia whose salt works as salt always does, to perk up flavors. I’ve also found that a little fat, along with the salt, brings out much more depth in wines you taste, so put a sheer amount of salted butter, or olive oil, on the bread. It works wonders.
If you are serving the wines with dinner, and I heartily recommend you do, keep the food very, very simple, like mild cheese, chicken broth, a steak, or, if you’re tasting white wines, fillet of fish.
You might have guests taste all the wines prior to dinner (remember, you’re only sampling six), then match them with the meal. For the real point of tasting wines is that they go best with food, and with few exceptions, aren’t worth much without it. Even a glass of Champagne deserves at least a canape.
During the discussion, try to keep the conversation lively (remember, you didn’t invite the wine snobs to lecture anyone), and it’s a capital idea to have a few choice observations from great writers handy for toasts, like Lord Byron’s “Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, sermons and soda-water the day after.”
Finally, print out the names of all the wines for guests to take home. And finish every drop of wine you open.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Andrew Dunn on books.