If a weekend getaway to Napa Valley isn’t in your plans — and let's be real, that's not realistic for the millions of people who don't live within driving distance — how about bringing a bit of the valley to your zip code by hosting a wine-tasting party at home?
If you don't know your Merlot from your Malbec, that's actually perfect: the more tastings you try, the more you’ll learn about wine.
How to host a wine-tasting party
Let's start with three variations to choose from. These aren’t the only ways to taste wine, of course, but they are a great baseline for a wine-tasting party.
The single color party
This is a no-brainer: Just pick three different red wines or three white wines and taste them side by side. With a limited number and just one color, you will be able to see the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between broad grape categories very clearly. This style of tasting will give you a great introduction to both wine tasting and to some popular wines.
Quick tip: Do not pick wines that are labeled as red blends or white blends. Though they won’t all taste the same, you’ll appreciate the differences between the wines more when they are all different types of grapes.
Suggestions: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir; or Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling
The single varietal party
Wines are all made from grapes, but the specific grapes are known as "varietals." By tasting different wines of tasting the same varietal — say, three bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon — grown in different places, you can start to pick up the terroir of the vineyards in those locations.
A bit about that word, terroir. Wine experts use it often. Terroir refers to the way the climate and soil of a particular area affects wine. So when you taste the same grape variety grown in different places, the differences between the wines define the terroir of each place. For instance, a sauvignon blanc grown in one area might have seem citrusy and grassy, while in another, it might be far fruitier, with notes of tropical fruits. Same grape, different flavors.
Many wines are labeled with the varietal that is (primarily) used to make them, while others are labeled with the place that the wine is grown. With French and Italian wines, for instance, you’ll see the region where the grapes are grown noted more prominently than the varietal, though specific regions use specific varietals. A quick online search (or chat with your local wine purveyor) can tell you what varietals are in any given wine, even if it isn’t on the label.
Suggestions: Syrah/Shiraz from California, Australia and France; zinfandel/primitivo from California, Australia and Italy;
sauvignon blanc from California, Australia and France; or riesling from Washington, Germany and France
The single producer party
This style of wine tasting is most like the tasting that you might do when you visit a vineyard since all the wines will be from one producer. When you're planning what to serve, start with a wine that you like and then see what other wines are in that producer's portfolio. You might end up with a mix of reds and whites, or a few bottles from the same producer, but from different vineyards.
Where to find wine for a wine tasting
Depending on what state you live in, your wine shopping options may be limited, but the best place to buy wine is typically a liquor store that specializes in wine — where staff members have deep wine knowledge and can help you pick quality wines at your ideal price point.
But when hosting a wine tasting, you don’t necessarily need to supply all the wine yourself. (That can be quite costly.) You can assign wines to friends: Ask one friend to pick out a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, another to pick a California pinot noir, etc.
Wine tasting party must-haves
Start with three to five wines for your tasting. Three is really the minimum — it is just right for a small group, especially if you don’t want to have a fridge full of partially-drunk bottles the next day. If you have four or more people, try to have four or five wines. The more wine you have, the more interesting your comparisons will be. More than five wines may start to get confusing, though, so limit your wines or taste them in sets.
Experts will tell you that it's best to taste your wine in wineglasses. Swirling wine in a wineglass lets you smell each wine more clearly and allows the aromas to fully ripen, or "open up," in a way that doesn't happen if you're pouring them into non-wineglasses. Wineglass charms are handy if you have more than a few guests, so they can keep track of their glass.
Many people take the term wine tasting literally — the pros certainly do — and they spit out the wine after they've swirled it around in their mouth. (Especially when there are a lot of wines to sample.) For this purpose, have one or two large cups or buckets available for your guests who wish to spit out their wine after they taste. And water, as well.
People are always talking about the various aromas they can isolate from wine, from lemon and grass in sauvignon blanc to strawberries or mushrooms in pinot noir. But unless you've have a bit of practice, you may find that all wine sort of smells...like wine.
To help pick out all those scents, put out some aromatic ingredients alongside the wine. When you can smell fresh blackberries or apple slices as you are sipping, it's much easier to identify those aromas and flavors. Talk to your wine seller or read the labels (which often call out the wine's notes) to pick out one or two elements for each wine and add them to your tasting table.
If you want to get really fancy, break out the Wine Aroma Wheel to learn how to break down some of what you’re smelling and tasting, too.
Notepads and pens
Give everyone supplies so they can write down their thoughts on each wine.
At the very least, you'll want to have plain crackers and water handy for cleansing the palate between wines. But in reality, many wine-tasting evenings include food as well—in part to keep people from getting drunk on an empty stomach, and also because it's often mealtime when you're swilling that vino. So unless everyone agrees to come on a full stomach, plan to serve up some easy appetizers. Has anyone ever gone wrong by bringing out a large platter of cheeses, cured meats, crackers, olives or tapenade? Nope.