Typically, hosting a wine tasting means gathering with friends for an evening of sipping and chatting. You know, normal life stuff. However, coronavirus is forcing us all to think outside the box when it comes to social interactions. Which got us wondering: how can you host an at-home wine tasting during quarantine? Here’s the good news: It’s totally possible to have a wine tasting during self-isolation, whether you’re hunkered down with your partner or your roommates, or even if you’re connecting with friends over Skype.
Wine tastings are an excellent way to learn more about wine and your own tastes. It’s a rare opportunity to compare a bunch of different wines in one sitting. Plus, if you like to read about wine or listen to podcasts about wine, tasting is the perfect way to put your vino know-how into practice, and – as they say – practice makes perfect. Here’s what you need to know about hosting your very own wine tasting.
How to Prepare in Advance
A wine tasting requires a bit of prep work, but it’ll be so worth it when it comes time to taste. Remember that if you don’t have all the materials you’d typically need, it’s okay to improvise.
Step One: Choosing The Wine
Wine tastings generally include four to six different types of wine. Rather than randomly selecting different bottles with nothing in common, pick a theme – whether it’s a type of grape or a region of the world. You’ll learn more about the differences between wines if you choose wines that have something in common. Here are some examples of themes you might choose:
- A single varietal from different regions, from the same region made by different producers, or made by the same producer in different years (or vintages)
- Different varietals from the same region (i.e., bold red wines from the same part of California)
- Similar varietals at different price points (i.e., light white wines – one under $10, one between $10-20, and one over $20)
How much wine will you need? At a wine tasting, it’s customary to pour 2-3 oz glasses – about half of a normal-sized glass. If you were hosting a party of eight to ten people, you’d want about two bottles of each wine. During quarantine, you’ll likely need only one bottle of each. One person will need to keep track of which wine ends up in which glass. If you’re the organizer, do a little research and make a fact sheet for each bottle, including the type of grapes, the region, the vintage, and any tasting notes listed. Make sure not to reveal the tasting notes until afterward, so you don’t influence anyone’s first impression. If you’re meeting friends on a Google Hangout, you’ll want to coordinate which wines you’ll be drinking.
Step Two: Setting the Table
Once you’ve picked out the vino, it’s time to set the table – both literally and figuratively. There are steps you can take in advance to get the most out of your tasting experience, and you can also make literal placemats to help you keep track of which wine is which.
What type of glasses should you use? There are technically “right” and “wrong” glasses for different wines, but we don’t believe that you have to be super strict about these rules – especially if your supplies are limited during the pandemic. Ideally, your wine glasses should be clean and clear, so you can easily see the wine, and big enough that you can swirl the wine and fit your nose inside the bowl. Traditional stemware has a tulip-shaped bowl to trap the wine’s aromas. In a pinch, clear plastic cups will do just fine.
DecantingMost wines benefit from being decanted. After being stored in a bottle, some wine – especially cheaper reds – can give off some funky odors when you first pour it out. Airing it out can get rid of those weird smells, and allow you to enjoy the lovely aromas intended by the winemaker. Decanting is usually not necessary or recommended for delicate white wines or sparkling wines. Decant lighter reds for 20-30 minutes and medium- to full-bodied reds for 30-60 minutes. If you don’t have a decanter, you can use a pitcher or another container. To speed up the process, you can pour wine between two different decanters or swirl the wine in the decanter to introduce more oxygen.
Spit bucketsIt’s always a good idea to keep spit buckets handy during a tasting. Especially if you’re tasting more than three or four wines, your palate will become fatigued more quickly if you’re actually drinking the wine rather than spitting it out. Nothing fancy is required here – Solo cups will work just fine.
PlacematsHere’s how to set up your tasting:
- Create a placemat for each person with something that you can write on – white printer paper works well.
- On each placemat, draw a circle for each wine glass, and number each circle. If you’re tasting four wines, draw four circles.
- Place each wine bottle in a paper bag, and number the bag.
- Pour the wine into the glass on the corresponding circle.
- Don’t reveal the labels until after you’re done tasting.
How do you decide which wine to taste first? In general, wines should be tasted in order from most delicate to boldest in flavor. This usually means going from whites to reds, from lowest alcohol content to higher alcohol levels, and saving the sweetest and most tannic wines for last.
Step Three: Setting the Mood
Think about setting the ambiance for the evening. The lighting can be dim enough to create a chill vibe, but should be bright enough that you can still see your wine clearly. Candlelight is a nice touch – just make sure to use unscented candles. Extra scents can interfere with how we taste wine. You can also make a themed playlist.
If you decide to taste a bunch of different reds from Argentina, think about setting a Pandora station to Argentinian folk music. If you’re going with a few light white wines, maybe you’ll want light and upbeat classical piano music to match the tone. Have fun with it. If you’re in charge of keeping track of the bottles, you can also assign this task to your partner.
Step Four: Thinking about Food
Since the focus is on the flavors of the wines, you shouldn’t serve food pairings during a tasting. However, you definitely want to have some food – and plenty of water – on hand to help cleanse the palate in between wines and to ensure that no one is over-served. Think neutral flavors. You’ll want to avoid anything hot, cold, or aromatic during the tasting. Bread and simple crackers make great palette cleansers.
You can also serve cheese, cured meat, fresh fruit and veggies, mixed nuts, or popcorn. When it comes to choosing the right cheese, think about the wine you’re serving. If you’re doing light white wines, you can go with more acidic cheeses like goat cheese. If you’re doing medium- to full-bodied reds, go with aged cheeses like cheddar. After the tasting is done, it’s a good idea to serve a full meal. Use the theme of the wines as a jumping off point to inspire food pairings. If you don’t feel like cooking, you can totally order a pizza (or another kind of takeout that fits with your wine).
How to Taste Wine
Hooray! The prep work is done and you’re ready to start tasting. This part can seem intimidating, but fear not. Wine tasting is a skill that takes practice, so definitely don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time at first. You can practice by taking your time and using all of your senses:
First, look at the wine. Is it opaque, or can you read a newspaper through it? What color is the wine, straw? Gold? Ruby? Purple? Be as specific as possible. Swirl the wine and take a look at the “legs” (aka the streaks that trickle down the side of the glass). If the wine appears to be viscous, it’ll probably have a higher ABV.
What aromas do you pick up? Is it fruity? What kind of fruit do you smell? Perhaps you notice a floral or herbaceous note, or something buttery or spicy. See how specific you can get.
At long last, you can go ahead and taste the wine. Sip it slowly and let it sit on your tongue for a moment. Do you notice different flavors from when you sniffed the wine?
Putting it All Together
Think about the sum total of everything you just observed. Is the wine balanced? What stands out most? Encourage everyone to talk about what they notice before you pull out your fact sheets. Ask everyone which wine they like the best and why.
How to Keep the Party Going
If you’re worried that you or your guests might run out of things to say, play some wine-themed party games to keep the fun going. Here are some of our favorites:
- Draw the Label: Hand out sheets of paper and have each person draw what they think the label should look like based on how the wine tastes.
- Wine Bingo: Make a Bingo-style sheet with wine tasting notes, and have everyone fill one out for each wine.
- Pop Culture Quiz: Pose questions to your group like, “If this wine was a celebrity, who would it be?” and “If this wine was an album, which album would it be?”
- The Price is Right: Have everyone guess how much each bottle costs in a store, and then reveal the actual prices.