How to Host a Wine Tasting Party:
The Kenwood Vineyards Guide(Download PDF Here)
A wine tasting party may be the ultimate combination of hospitality and practicality. Easy to plan and easy to give or host, a wine tasting party offers casual fun and the opportunity to explore wine’s pleasures without pretense. Let the following ideas, suggestions and tips from Kenwood Vineyards be your guide to hosting a great wine tasting party.
Begin by picking a theme for your wine tasting party. If the group includes individuals with limited wine experience, a wine tasting of different grape varieties – for example, Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (for white wines), and Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon (for red wines) – makes sense. A more wine-savvy group might enjoy tasting and comparing wines of the same grape variety from different regions in California or from different countries around the world. Real wine sophisticates would get a kick out tasting several different vintages of a classic wine like Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon or several wines of the same vintage and grape variety from a single growing region like Russian River Valley. The choices are endless, so be creative.
A wine tasting party can be any size, but common sense dictates the number of guests. A bottle of wine will provide 12 two-ounce tastes, so unless you plan on more than one bottle of each wine, 12 tasters should be considered the maximum number. Another limiting factor is the number you can seat at your dining room or family room table. Four to eight guests, plus the host and/or hostess, usually works best; large enough to keep conversation flowing, but small enough to be comfortable.
Number of Wines
A wine tasting party can include any number of wines, but the optimal number – one that encourages comparisons without overwhelming the senses – is five or six.
The room for the tasting party should be well-lit and the table itself should be covered with a white tablecloth or set with white placemats (paper is fine in both cases), so the color of the wines can be seen accurately. Of course, no scented candles, flowers or air fresheners should be in the room and guests should be asked not to wear perfume or cologne.
Though it is possible for guests to use one glass throughout an entire tasting party (by dumping excess wine after tasting into a “spit bucket” and rinsing the glass before pouring the next wine), a glass for each wine for each taster works best, giving the tasters the opportunity to revisit wines over the course of the tasting. Clear, all purpose wine glasses, with elongated, tapered bowls that aerate the wine and concentrate its aromas are ideal for a casual wine tasting party: If you don’t have enough, you can ask your guests to bring their own wine glasses.
Other table preparations for the tasting party include paper and pens at each seat so your guests can take notes, light foods like water crackers and mild cheese to cleanse the palate between wines, and a pitcher of water. Serious wine tasters often put a “spit bucket” on the table and use it, but for a casual wine tasting party, it really isn’t necessary.
Also, make sure you have a corkscrew on hand!
The last task – and a very important one - is to chill each wine to its proper temperature. Assuming a room temperature of 68 degree Fahrenheit, white wines and rosés need approximately 50 minutes in the refrigerator to bring them down to their ideal serving temperature of 45-50 degrees (Chardonnay is the one exception; it shows its best at about 55 degrees, so needs about 40 minutes in the fridge). The ideal serving temperature for red wines is 60-65 degrees, so they need only 10 minutes in the fridge (here too, there’s an exception; very light reds, like Gamay, are best at 50-55 degrees). For those who prefer a simpler approach, Kenwood Vineyards’ winemaker suggests keeping white wines in the refrigerator for a few hours prior to the tasting and taking them out 20 minutes before serving and putting red wines – should they be a little warm, as is often the case in summer – in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving.
The Main Event
Party planners have long debated whether a wine tasting party should be a “blind” tasting, with the bottles in bags so the labels can’t be seen, or a “non-blind” tasting, with their identities in view. The choice is entirely up to you. The one advantage of a blind tasting is that not knowing the identities of the wines eliminates any bias based on the label. If you decide on a blind tasting, put the wines in paper bags and identify each with a letter – A, B, C, etc. – on the bag. Even if the tasting is not blind, marking each bottle of wine and the base of each glass for each taster in the same way – A, B, C, etc. – with a grease pencil helps assure accuracy in pouring, tasting and taking notes.
There is also some debate as to whether wines should be uncorked early and allowed to “breathe” before being poured at a tasting. Wine begins evolving as soon as it is opened; to uncork bottles and then wait a period of time before pouring the wines only results in tasters missing out on the early minutes of that evolution. The one exception is very young red wines, which often need a little exposure to the air to show their best. For these to show their best, decant them into carafes before pouring.
After the corks are pulled, the wines are poured into each set of glasses in a progression that starts on the left and proceeds to the right. A tasting that features various grape varieties begins on the left with the dry whites from light-bodied (Pinot Gris) to medium-bodied (Sauvignon Blanc) to full-bodied (Chardonnay), then off-dry whites (usually Riesling and Gewürztraminer), then rosé(s) and finally the reds, from light-bodied (Pinot Noir), to medium-bodied (Zinfandel, Merlot and Sangiovese) and ending with full-bodied (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) on the right. If the tasting features wines of different vintages, the progression runs from the oldest wine on the left to the youngest wine on the right; tasting older wines first makes it easier to evaluate their subtle nuances. The wines also are tasted beginning on the left and moving to the right and it is traditional that participants keep talking to a minimum during the tasting process, both to allow others to concentrate and to not influence their evaluation of the wines.
While everyone has their own wine tasting ritual, Kenwood Vineyards recommends the following traditional approach – see, swirl, smell, sip. First observe the wine’s color (light golden color in whites and dark color in reds indicate intensity). Then swirl the wine in the glass to release its aromas and sniff (nose right at the brim and inclined into the glass) to experience those aromas. Next sip – paying close attention to the flavors and textures – and swallow. Lastly, take notes. To fully experience the wine, repeat the process two or three times. While wine fanatics often describe every aromatic, flavor and textural nuance of a wine in incredible detail, wine novices usually describe character elements like “delicate,” “bold,” “floral,” “fresh,” etc.; both approaches are equally valid. After all the wines have been tasted and notes on each have been taken, encourage participants to taste them again; wine evolves in the glass over time and will often reveal different facets of its character the second time around.
When everyone has finished tasting, it is time to discuss the wines. There are no right or wrong answers in wine tasting, only personal preferences. After the wines have been discussed (and if a blind tasting, before the wines are revealed), it can be fun to have your guests list the wines in their order of preference and tally their votes; expect a surprise or two when the results are revealed. Also, as the party winds down, see which wine got finished first - the most enjoyed wine may not be the one that was voted the best!
Includes tasting placemats!