The topic of wine can make anyone tongue-tied—even people who have spent time in notable tasting rooms can find it difficult to describe exactly what they’re looking for in a glass. Since the best way to learn how to articulate your preferences is to sample different options (and because it’s more fun to get together with fellow amateur oenophiles than to sip alone), we asked Aileen Sevier, marketing director at Early Mountain Vineyard, for advice on how to host a wine tasting. Here, the expert from the award-winning winery located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, weighs in on everything from curating a selection that will create moments of discovery to how to make sure the wine you serve is the ideal temperature.
Learn the language. To help guests find the best language to describe what they’re tasting, Sevier suggests providing an aroma wheel, which is divided into 11 different categories—think fruity, woodsy, floral, spicy, etc.—and further provides flavor prompts, such as citrus, cut grass, mushroom, and coffee. Providing tasting notes with the names of the wines you’ll be enjoying, plus room for people to write down their thoughts and preferences, will also help guests organize their thoughts, and create a record of their favorites that they can refer back to later.
Don’t overthink the glassware. If the assumption that you don’t have the “right” glass for the wine you’ll be sampling makes you hesitant to host a tasting, you can relax: Sevier says it’s not necessary to pour into vessels specifically made for red, white, or sparkling. “Simply select a versatile, high-quality all-purpose glass—one with a tulip shape to focus aromas,” Sevier suggests. “You’ll want clear glass so you can see the wine, and a thin lip. Even sparkling can benefit from being poured in a wine glass to enhance the flavors and aromas.”
Be mindful of your pours. Keep in mind that a tasting pour is very different from a full drink. In tasting rooms, you’re served a 2-ounce pour of each wine, which is a good amount to emulate when hosting a tasting at home. Bear in mind that a typical glass of wine is approximately 5 ounces, so going easy on your tasting pours makes good sense. Speaking of going easy….
Provide a discard vessel. If you don’t want your guests to get overly tipsy, provide a place for them to pour out the remainder of their wine, Sevier recommends. A wine or champagne bucket works nicely. As in tasting rooms, guests are not expected to finish off each pour; rather, the experience is about taking in the aromas and getting to know your palate.
Pay attention to temperature. Make sure your reds aren’t too warm and your whites aren’t too cold, which can have a big impact on one’s perception of them. “Placing your reds in the fridge for 30 minutes and leaving your whites on the counter for 30 minutes does wonders,” Sevier says, adding, “But keep the bubbles on ice —they’re best really cold.”
Hold off on the hors d’oeuvres. If you’re trying to create a true wine tasting experience, don’t serve any food before or while your guests sample the wine, as the flavors and aromas will interfere with the flavors of the wine. If you must provide some form of sustenance before people have finished sipping, Sevier suggests sticking to neutral offerings. “You only want to offer water crackers or a baguette as a palate cleanser,” she notes.
Engage the senses (and don’t forget to swirl). There is a multi-sensory process to tasting, Sevier says. “I always encourage folks to look first and sniff both before and after swirling,” she shares. “Swirling causes the aromas to change quite a bit, so it’s best to look, sniff, swirl, sniff again, and finally taste.”
Set up moments of discovery. “One of the best ways to learn about wine, and what you like, is to set up contrast and create ‘aha’ moments,” Sevier says. This entails choosing wines that are on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum—for example, trying a neutral and crisp Pinot Grigio alongside a full-bodied and floral Viognier. Below, she provides some of her favorite contrasts, which she suggests discussing with the expert at your local wine shop to garner recommendations:
- High- vs. low-acid whites: Compare New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Australian Chardonnay or Côte de Rhône Blanc to really understand contrast in acidity.
- Oak aged vs. non-oaked whites: Compare stainless steel fermented Chardonnay with oak barrel fermented and aged Chardonnay.
- Aromatic vs. non-aromatic whites: Compare German Riesling (ask for one that’s dry, or look for “Trocken” on the label) to Italian Pinot Grigio.
- Low vs. high tannin reds: Compare a Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon.
- High- vs. low-acid reds: Compare an Italian Sangiovese (look for Chianti or Rosso di Montalicino) or Montepulciano with a Côtes du Rhône or a Zinfandel.
Tell a wine story. If you are hosting a crowd that’s already familiar with their general preferences, you might want to create a tasting experience that’s a bit more nuanced. In this case, Sevier suggests the approach of curating a flight of wine that tells a story. For example:
- Syrah from around the world: Select options from more obvious areas, such as California, France (Northern Rhône Valley, such as Crozes-Hermitage), and Australia (will be labeled as Shiraz), as well as some that may be harder to track down, such as South Africa and New Zealand. While there will be some common notes throughout, such as a distinctive color and black pepper spice, the flavors and texture will run the gamut from juicy and fruit-driven to very earthy and layered.
- See the world through rosé: The hottest category for the last several years is also one of the most fun to explore. Grab an assortment of styles and colors from Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Virginia, and of course, France, and discover which style you prefer by tasting through iterations from around the globe.
- Put your money where your mouth is: Many factors contribute to the price of a bottle of wine, including the cost of vineyard land, yield of the acreage, and production factors—especially the inclusion of expensive oak barrels in the fermentation and aging. Taste wines “blind” (not knowing which wine is in which glass) of the same variety and contrasting price points to figure out which is your favorite.
Offer a lavish post-tasting spread. Your guests will likely be ready for a snack once they are done tasting, but you don’t want the aroma of food cooking in the kitchen to interfere with their experiences with the wines. Instead, serve an ample cheese and charcuterie board, like you would find in a tasting room (Early Mountain Vineyard’s offerings are delicious works of art). Talk to your local expert about the best cheese to serve with your chosen wines, and select an assortment of cured meats, olives, nuts, spreads, bread, and crackers to accompany them. Post-tasting, your guests will appreciate the variety of flavors as they settle in with full pours of their favorite wines.
Photography featuring Early Mountain Vineyard wine and charcuterie board by Tom McGovern. TSG Tip 304 from Aileen Sevier of Early Mountain Vineyard in Madison, Virginia. Early Mountain Vineyard is featured in The Scout Guide Charlottesville.