Wine tastings are an interesting and engaging way to add a splash of sophistication and elegance to your next get-together with friends. The best part? It’s actually a lot easier and simpler than you might think. Whether you’re planning to explore the esoteric wines of northern Italy, or sip on a selection of your tried and true favourites, there are 5 simple steps that will help you host a wine tasting party like a pro, while ensuring that your party’s simple, fun and delicious.
Pick A Theme
Any good party starts with a fun and engaging theme – and wine tastings are no different. Your theme can focus on anything you think sounds fun – from the types of wine or foods you’d like serve, to something seasonal, like the Academy Awards, the arrival of spring or Halloween. Think of an overarching theme that an tie all the elements (wine, food, décor, party games and attire or costumes) of your party together in a fun and cohesive way.
When hosting a wine tasting party the wines are the star of the show, so selecting the perfect wines can be a bit intimidating – but it doesn’t need to be. Before you start shortlisting wines, consider a few things: (i) how wine saavy are the guests you plan on inviting? (ii) are their any obvious connections between possible wines and your party theme? (iii) do you want to pick wines that match the weather/season? (i.e. light refreshing whites for a hot summer afternoon vs. big full-bodied reds on a cold winter evening).
My experience is that more experienced wine drinkers appreciate the chance to compare a selection of wines that are more similar to one another (i.e. wines made from different producers from the same grape in the same region, or a selection of different vintages of the same wine), whereas less experienced wine drinkers might find it more interesting to compare wines that showcase bigger differences (i.e. a tasting of 5 different grape varieties).
Here are some great thought starters when considering the wines to serve:
- Discover a selection of different wines made by the same producer
- Explore a single grape variety from different parts of the world
- Delve into a style of wine (light refreshing whites, full-bodied reds, sparkling wines from different parts of the world)
- Serve the same wine from different vintages
- Try wines made from different producers in the same region
- Test which wine is the “best” pairing for a single food (like goat cheese, or pizza, or tomatoes)
- Blind tasting of expensive wines vs. inexpensive wines
When it comes to deciding how much wine you’ll need, there are two guidelines to keep in mind: (i) the average guest will consume somewhere between 1/2 and a full bottle, and (ii) a standard 750mL bottle should serve 10-12 guests (or an average pour of 2 oz). With this mind, when deciding on the number of people to invite, working in multiples of 10-12 guests is a good idea since you’ll get maximum usage of each bottle you purchase.
Once you’ve selected your wines, it’s time to turn your attention to the food that you’ll serve along with them. Unless you’re planning to match each item of food you’ll be serving with a particular wine, you really can’t go wrong by serving a line-up of your favourite munchies. That said, there are a few munchies that I find to be particularly wine-friendly picks that’ll match well with practically every wine out there, and a few ingredients that tend to bring out the worst in most wines. With this in mind, here are my “go-to” picks, as well as a list of items that I generally try to avoid:
- Cheese: an assortment of mild through full-flavoured cheeses that offer a variety of textures and origin make for the best cheese selection. You can also check out our earlier article on matching wine with a some of the world’s most delicious cheeses here
- Cured Meats: from prosciutto to chorizo and back again these thin slices of salty heaven work wonderfully with wine an are also an excellent accompaniment alongside bold flavourful cheeses
- Terrine + Pate: these rich and decadent meat preparations can be served solo, or alongside a selection of cured meats to round out a delicious charcuterie plate
- Grilled Veggies: sweet peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggplant topped with a drizzle of beautiful fragrant olive oil and fresh herbs are an easy and tasty addition
- Crackers & Bread: my advice is to stick with lightly or unflavoured versions of these and allow them to double as something of a palate cleanser between sips of wine
- Artichokes: one of the toughest wine and food combinations out there – often creating a metallic and tinny flavour when served with wine
- Cabbage/Brussel Sprouts: tend to create a bit of a sulfurous flavour when combined with wine
- Vinegar: the acetic acid in vinegar tends to make wines taste somewhat volatile and mask their natural fruit flavours
- Ice Cream/Sorbet: extremely cold foods “freeze” your taste buds in turn masking the flavours of wine
- Very Sweet Desserts: if you’d like to serve something sweet, save it until after you’re done tasting wines, otherwise wines tend to come off somewhat bitter and thin and lacking in richness and fruit flavours
Tools of the trade
If you’re hosting a wine tasting party, you’re going to want to do everything you can to make the wines you select show their very best. While I am not into too many of the wine gizmos and gadgets on the market, there are a few inexpensive tools which are readily available and well worth the investment to have on-hand for your wine tasting party. Here’s a checklist of the items that are worth making sure you have handy for your party:
- Good quality wine glasses – I can’t underscore this point strongly enough. You don’t need to spend a fortune on expensive crystal stemware, but serving wines in the right glasses can have a huge impact (both positive or negative) on the experience you’ll have with a given wine. In fact, I’d suggest that this impact is substantial enough that serving the identical wine out of a selection of 4-5 different shaped glasses would be an outstanding and interesting tasting idea all on its own. Good quality glassware should have a large bowl (18 to 20 oz is a good guideline), a thinner rim and should be curved somewhat inwards at the top of the glass. I also prefer to stick to clear uncoloured glass and avoid glassware with designs or etchings.
- As someone who tastes and attends tastings events as a part of my job, I have absolutely no objections to using the same glass to taste multiple wines. I also prefer to “rinse” my glass using wine, rather than water. Most tap water contains chlorine which interacts with wine in strange and unpleasant ways – and residual water also dilutes the next wine you taste after rinsing. A tiny pour of wine (less than 1/4 oz) is the best way to rinse between wines, but moving from lighter wines through heavier wines generally reduces the need for rinsing. If you’re going to use water to rinse, be sure to use a bottled mineral water rather than water from the tap.
- A good quality double-hinged corkscrew. This is really as fancy a tool as you’ll need to remove the cork easily and reduce the chances of snapping a cork when trying to remove it. This shouldn’t cost more than $10.
- Last – and probably atop my “must-have” list, alongside well-chosen wine glasses – is a proper wine decanter. While most of us are at least aware of the notion of aging wine, few give as much attention to ensuring that wine gets access to air before serving. Given that these two ideas are actually linked in a fairly direct way (aging wine is the slow interaction of air, moving through the cork, with wine) decanting and allowing wine to “breathe” before service is an important idea that should get more attention. Particularly when serving young wines, aeration achieves a lot of the same things as aging, bringing out the best, most complex and complete flavours and aromas a wine has to offer. Best of all, a basic good quality decanter is easy to find and shouldn’t cost more than $20. Allow wines to sit in the decanter, and give it a gentle swirl, 20-30 minutes before you plan on serving it. I promise you’ll be impressed by the results.
Small Details Can Make a Big Difference
Now that we’ve got the main checklist items covered, here are a few small details or suggestions that, while not mandatory or “must-haves” can add to the fun and impact of your party. First, consider creating wine tasting note sheets for each guest. This will allow them to make notes as they sip, swirl and savour each wine – but it will also give them a list to take home in case they want to try and hunt down one (or more!) of the wines at a shop over the days or weeks to follow. If you go to the effort of carefully selecting some interesting cured meats or artisan cheeses for your party, consider making small flags using toothpicks to label the names or origins.
Another great idea is to create name tags to help each guest keep track of their glass. Not only will this cut back on the number of glasses you’ll have to wash – it can also be a fun and creative nod to your chosen them. Finally, after everyone has had a chance to taste the wines, why not conduct a vote by secret ballot to see which wines are most popular, least popular – or which wines your guests think are most or least expensive. When allowed to “cast their ballot” in secret you may find that even the quietest and shyest of your guests are more eager to participate.
When hosting a wine tasting party you also assume the responsibility of being a good host – and that includes making sure that your friends and guests consumer alcohol responsibly and get home safely. A good wine tasting should be fun and encourage your guests to try new and different wines – but remember that enjoying and experiencing wines in moderation tends to lead to greater enjoyment than chugging down copious quantities. You can encourage thoughtful consumption by having spit buckets on-hand, water as a palate cleanser between wines, and most importantly, encourage your guests to consider their transportation to and from your party ahead of time. It’s always a good idea to have taxi chits or public transportation tokens handy to help make sure your guests get home safely.