How to host the perfect wine-tasting event
There’s always a somewhat delicate balance to be struck when it comes to serving alcohol at events you’re hosting. Whether it’s a standalone tasting, a smaller part of a full dining experience, or even a highlight of a wedding or bridal shower, of course you’ll want your drinking guests to be relaxed and having a great time – but we also hope to steer clear of the potential disaster zone wherein someone (or everyone!) ends up getting a little too, er, ‘refreshed’ early on in the proceedings.
Adding a wine-tasting element to any party is an excellent way to bring friends or family together to enjoy a drink without things threatening to go off the rails in the first couple of hours. By making a feature – rather than a fuss – of controlling the pace at which alcohol is served and consumed, hosts can easily ensure that festivities progress at a sensible rate without their guests feeling scrutinised or constrained.
There’s certainly an art to hosting a good wine-tasting event, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be in any way challenging or serious; in fact, rule number one should always be to relax and have fun with it. Far too many people are worried enough about wine already – how to order it, how to drink it, what to say about it when they do – and, ultimately, the key point to impress upon your guests is that there’s absolutely no ‘wrong’ way to enjoy a glass or two in good company.
In fact, a successful tasting event for a diverse group with varying experience levels needn’t involve anything more complicated than some interesting drinks choices and a lively chat about what people think of them. With that in mind, here are a few handy tips to get your DIY tasting event flowing nicely:
1. Selecting the wines
First and foremost, obviously, you’ll want to have a think about your wine selection. There’s no hard and fast rule for which sorts of varieties are best to serve at a tasting, but it’s always a wise move to avoid dazzling people with choice. Stick to a limited range of options – three to five different samplers is generally ideal, depending on your group size – and aim to include at least one relatively familiar and unexotic bottle as a sort of ‘benchmark’, to give people a recognisable orientation point.
Next, try to offer up contrasting grape varieties by considering their typical characteristics. In (perhaps overly!) simple terms, reds largely tend to range from soft, fruity and easy-drinking to more complex, heavier and almost leathery. Whites, meanwhile, are most often located somewhere on a spectrum between very crisp and dry with sharper gooseberry, lemon or grassy overtones (such as zesty Pinot Grigio or Picpoul), to sweeter, rounder, more tropical or floral-influenced notes (try a boldly oaked Chardonnay or a buttery Viognier).
Both red and white wines can show varying degrees of oak influence based on the time they spend in oak casks, a process used to enhance certain tastes and smells (typically woody and vanilla notes) while softening the sharper edges of more acidic fruit flavours. Winemakers playing with oak influences has often been likened to the way chefs use salt in cooking; it can have a dramatic effect on the end product, so it’s always a good idea to include one or two wines that show this to a greater or lesser degree. Heavily oaked Chardonnays are typically among the most illustrative white varieties, while Rioja is an excellent choice for showing oak influence on red wines – opt for one marked Reserva or Gran Reserva for a good indication that it’s been oak-stored for at least a year.
The amount of ‘body’ a wine has – broadly speaking, the overall mouthfeel of a wine, combined with its density of colour and flavour – also makes a key difference to the drinking experience, so be mindful of trying to offer a diverse selection on this front too. Very generally, more full-bodied reds tend to be those based on black fruit flavours and grown in warmer climates (say, Petite Sirah, Malbec or Nero d’Avola), while sharper red fruit notes and cooler growing climates tend to result in a lighter-bodied drink (Gamay and Pinot Noir are both popular and widely available choices).
2. Presenting the wines
You can either present each wine to guests at the table, or if a larger gathering makes that impractical, consider using drinks stations spread around the venue with a few bottles of a given wine in each location. (This latter approach also has the added benefit of helping present a shorter list of options as a more meticulously curated selection.)
If you’re using wine stations, they can be decorated however you please, but incorporating elements that reference the wine being presented at each station is a brilliant way to help convey their various characteristics. You can print out enlarged versions of the wine labels, or set up a chalkboard noting the different flavour and bouquet profiles at each table, perhaps leaving space for guests to add in their own reactions as well.
Traditional snacks from the wine’s region of origin can be a nice addition at very casual tastings, but be careful about any strong flavours likely to overpower more delicate drinks if those are your real focus. Most intensively wine-focused events will generally serve only bread or crackers as palate cleansers, along with a small glass of water. Similarly, strong-smelling flowers or scented candles should ideally be avoided, as they can interfere with perceptions of both taste and aroma to a surprising degree!
In terms of glassware, do try to pick out the ideal shape for each type of wine being served, as it can really enhance the experience depending on the grape variety and the different flavours and ‘noses’ (smells, in simple terms) they’re renowned for. There’s not an awful lot to remember on this front, as it happens: the condensed version is that while all non-sparkling wines enjoy an elongated bowl or tulip-shaped glass, whites are generally served in smaller, shallower bowls than reds.
Smaller bowls for white wines help to preserve a cooler temperature and reveal more delicate floral aromas, essentially because the drinker’s nose is closer to the liquid. Red wines, conversely, can present strong acidic or tannin notes if the liquid is poured too high up the glass – they tend to benefit from a more bulbous bowl with deeper sides, allowing the ethanol to diffuse a little while fruitier scents to rise more slowly to the surface.
3. Tasting the wines
The most important thing to remember about the actual tasting section of your event is to try to keep it as free from pompous ceremony as possible. Don’t bother with a load of rules about the ‘correct’ way to do it; by all means make a couple of suggestions and observe standard etiquette as closely or loosely as you choose, but give people options about how they want to enjoy their drinks.
The basics are straightforward: encourage guests to pour just small amount (a couple of centimetres, depending on glass size), swirl it gently to help release flavour and aroma compounds, and consider any marked changes in colour intensity at different depths of the glass. Then, nose it carefully and thoughtfully, paying attention to how scents overlap and push each other around, and finally sip generously, giving the liquid a few seconds to linger across various areas of the mouth and tongue.
(Purists would have us believe that the wine should subsequently be spat out – we’ll leave it to you to decide whether spittoons are an appropriate or desirable provision, but don’t be surprised if very few people actually make use of them!)
Bear in mind that the order your guests taste the wines in can greatly impact on their experience of each subsequent one, even with the benefit of crackers and water in between sips. If it’s practical to do so, you can mitigate this to a significant extent by introducing the lightest wines first, moving through to the more full-bodied, dark or intense varieties as things progress. Any sweet wines, if you’re featuring those, should always be saved until last.
Finally, make sure you give your guests time to make notes and discuss each wine before pressing on. It may take a good few minutes and multiple small sips for the characteristics of a given wine to reveal themselves, so don’t be in a rush to press for instant reactions – and, again, bear in mind that many people experience a great deal of shyness and hesitancy when it comes to voicing their views, for fear of getting it ‘wrong’.
Concentrate on creating an atmosphere where that’s impossible. If you’re handing out cards to make notes on, you can help enormously by eschewing overly specialised terminology, and even by giving people little prompts or suggestions for things to look out for – although try to avoid pre-empting their answers, or you might end up with a very limited range of reactions!
Not everyone will be used to considering a wine’s nose or its finish, for example, so encourage them to think about what’s going on both before and after they take a drink (better quality wines will often boast a lingering finish, while more cheap and cheerful varieties will typically fade quite quickly). To help lighten the atmosphere even further, you could even introduce a game element towards the end, perhaps based on identifying wines you’ve already served in a blind test.
And of course, finally, do get some catering sorted for afterwards: not only will people have worked up an appetite, they’ll also want to soak up some of those delicious tipples before they go on and have any more! Cheeses and cured meats are always excellent choices for a wine-based event, along with plenty of good bread, perfectly cooked potatoes and light fruit-based salads. After the formal tasting, it’s a perfect time to showcase which of the wines you picked out go best with various dishes – so get creative in your pairings to complete the tasting full experience for your guests.
Article provided by Plato Catering Hire.