How to Throw a Wine-Tasting Party

When it comes to tasting wine, there's no need to feel intimidated. Here are a few tips and suggestions to help you learn a little something — and have fun — the next time you and your friends decide to pop a few corks.

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Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

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Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

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Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

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Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Photo By: ShotShare/Getty Images

Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Photo By: Sarah E Crowder

Wine Tasting, Demystified

Even those of us who really like wine may not feel like we know all that much about it — which kinds we like best, whether we gravitate toward oaky whites or fruity reds, if the sangiovese grape is the one for us. Without pretense, without snobbery, wouldn't it be fun to get a bunch of friends together with a bunch of bottles and get a bit more attuned to what strikes our individual fancies? No rules, no rights or wrongs, just some slightly reflective sipping with some wine-loving pals. Here is how to do just that.

Pick a Theme

A wine tasting with 10 random bottles may be fun, but it won't yield all that much in terms of learning — a white Bordeaux from France and a pinot noir from Oregon are two totally different wines, so it's difficult to pull out significant takeaways. You need to focus in on a direction, even one as broad as California white wines, so that you are tasting to compare and contrast wines with something in common, and this way you can walk away with a better understanding about a particular type of wine.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Tasting

One way to focus and organize a wine tasting is to choose a "vertical" or "horizontal" tasting. A vertical tasting features wine from the same producer but from multiple years — if you ever visit a vineyard and do a wine tasting there, you are doing a vertical tasting. This kind of tasting illustrates the difference between vintages.

A horizontal tasting compares a group of wines with similar boundaries, such as the type of grape, region or wine style. Often a single year is selected as well, in order to really be able to compare grapes to grapes, as it were. For instance, you might taste all sangiovese — perhaps from the same year but from different producers. This is also known as a varietal tasting.

Pick a Country or Region

You can also decide to hone in on a single country. Then, within that country you might also choose to do a vertical or horizontal tasting, or you might just decide to taste a selection of Spanish red wines or all German rieslings. Or perhaps you pick a group of white wines from Tuscany. Or maybe the country is all that the wines have in common, and you jump from grape to grape. Again, it's just a way of focusing the tasting.

Natalie MacLean, editor of the popular wine review site clarifies: "If you compare a selection of Australian shirazes from different wineries, that’s a horizontal tasting. But comparing the shirazes of one Australian winery for each year from 2012 to 2016 is a vertical tasting."

Single-Variety Blind Tasting

If you want to make it into a bit of a fun game, follow these steps to hosting a single-variety blind tasting from Eric Hemer, master sommelier and corporate director of wine education for Southern Glazer's. This is a great way to get people talking about wine.

1: Select four white wines, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot grigio, or four red wines, such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sangiovese (such as Chianti from Italy) and tempranillo (such as Rioja from Spain).

2: Open and wrap each bottle in a paper lunch bag or burlap sack, and number the bottles 1 to 4. Have someone mix the wines up so you won't know which is which and can participate in the tasting.

3: Set the table with 4 wineglasses per person on a plain white 8.5-by-11-inch paper and write 1 to 4 below each glass. Pour 2 ounces of each wine into each corresponding glass.

4: Have water and crackers available so your guests can "cleanse their palates" after each wine.

5: Have prepared a handout for each guest with a brief description guide to each of the wine varieties you'll be tasting. You can find such descriptions online or in books on wine.

6: Then sit down and have fun! Take turns talking about each wine as you taste it, consult your guides, and have each guest say what he or she thinks the wine is. Record the answers.

7: Keep track of who gets the most wines correct and award a prize (maybe a great bottle of wine!) for the person who gets the most right answers.

How Many People, How Many Bottles?

Aim for six to 10 people for a wine-tasting party, especially if you want to share opinions with the group. As for different bottles/types of wine, six to 10 is also a good number. For six people, one bottle of each type will offer a nice tasting for each person, with the chance to go back for another splash, and for 10 you will probably need two bottles of each to make sure people can get a second small pour of the ones they want to try again. If you are serving a meal after the tasting, pick two of the wines to serve with the meal, and get an additional couple of bottles of each.

Layer on the Food

If you are focusing on a country or a region for your tasting, then roll that geography out to the food as well. For instance, if you are doing a tasting of Spanish wines, you'll want to have a good selection of tapas ready to pair with the wines, and you'll also want a nice cheese board, featuring cheeses from Spain, olives and all of those fabulous Spanish cured meats. For the most part, smaller bites work best with wine-tasting parties, so people can graze and keep their focus on the wines. If you want to follow up with a main course, paired with a couple of the selected wines, make that a second part of the evening.

Remember the Bread

Don't forget to have an ample amount of bread on hand, as guests will want to clear their palates between sips, and bread is a great way to do that. Have some of the bread sliced for cheeses and such, and set out some cubed in small baskets or bowls for in-between bites.

Pick the Glassware

While you can certainly go with plastic, for an occasion that's all about the wine, glass seems like the best choice. Pick a good all-purpose wineglass, and if you want, you can get some pens designed to write on the glasses so people can label theirs. You can go with one glass per person, but if you offer two, people can taste two wines at the same time and see how they compare and contrast. When switching to the next wine, you can just dump and pour a new wine. You can also rinse the glass with water, though many wine aficionados think this is a sacrilege — that you should only rinse with a small amount of the wine you are about to taste next. How much wine you are willing to swish and dump is up to you. 

Get That Playlist Ready

Again, if you have a locale as your central organizing thought, extend it to the music. Or, if you are honing in on a year, maybe have some fun and make that playlist completely from the year you are featuring. Sure, you could also just have some nice background music ready to go; Spotify and other music sites have some ready-to-go playlists, or you can also create your own. There's no shame in raising your glass to tunes like "Red, Red Wine" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Provide Pens and Scorecards

If you want to go all out, you might print out cards with each wine listed, the year, region, any other pertinent information and space for tasting notes. Or find a wine-tasting-notes template online and print out one for each guest. Even simpler would be to have index cards and pens available for people to jot down information they want to remember. Most people have a very hard time remembering specific things about wines after tasting a bunch in one evening.

Make Sure the Wines Are at the Right Temperature

White wines should be between 50 and 55 degrees (it's good to take them out of the fridge about 15 minutes before serving), and reds should be between 60 and 65 degrees (this often means putting them in the fridge for 15 to 30 or so minutes before serving). Whites that are too cold will not have as open a scent and taste, and reds that are too warm may taste heavy and dull.

To Spit or Not to Spit?

If you are serving a lot of wine, give your gusts the option to spit some out into a sturdy spittoon of some sort (a few mugs will do the trick), and provide a larger bucket or bowl to pour out excess from their glasses if they wish to move on to the next one and not finish that last little bit.

How to Taste

Everyone should check self-consciousness and pretentiousness at the door. Nothing puts a damper on a wine party more than people intimidated to get in there and sniff and swirl, or conversely (and in fact worse) those who try to impress others with their wine knowledge. Encourage your guests to look at the color (white tablecloths are encouraged so people can look at the wine color against that background), and see what the first impression of the aroma and taste is and how it changes over time. You might all try to do as the pros do and sip in wine and air at the same time — making a kind of weird slurp-y or gargle-y sound — to get the most flavor out of the wine. And as you nibble the snacks, notice how the experience of drinking each wine changes as it's paired with different foods.

How to Talk About Wine

Yes, yes, we all have read descriptions of wines that are "earthy" and "fruit forward" and maybe felt they were a little silly or intimidating; we've even read words and phrases like "full of cherry" or "precocious" or "forest floor" or "barnyard." But this is a wine-tasting party, so encourage your guests to think about texture, weight, color, balance, and — yes — what flavors and foods and words come to mind as they taste. After a bit of time and a few sips, your friends may become a bit less inhibited about pulling out some free-associative vocabulary.

Have Fun!

This is a wine-tasting party! How great is that? Enjoy it, don't take anything too seriously, and hopefully you will all feel a little bit more savvy the next time you go to the wine store.