When you host a wine tasting, each guest brings with them a different level of tasting know-how and prior wine knowledge. The flavors and bouquets of the wines will resonate uniquely with different palates. What each individual brings to the tasting table is part of what makes each tasting a unique experience. Even when you’re tasting with a group of seasoned wine connoisseurs, you can still find opportunities surprise and delight your guests with each pour.
“A good tasting occurs when you discover something that you’ve never tried before,” says Antoine Olivain, wine expert at the ultra-chic Bridges restaurant in Ubud, Bali. He has five years of formal experience working with wine, including a year working at a vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Below you’ll find some of Monsieur Olivain’s tips and tricks for staging an unforgettable tasting.
1. Taste at the right time
A wine tasting is best conducted when your tastebuds are working full-throttle. “Before lunch or before dinner is the best moment for a pure tasting,” says Olivain. “Around 11 in the morning or six at night; just before eating.” Your tastebuds will respond better to the flavor profiles of the wine because they are anticipating food.
As a student at University of Avignon pursuing a master’s degree in International Wine Business Management, Olivain said tastings were always held between 10:30 a.m. and noon.
This is not to say you can’t host a wine tasting at lunch or dinner. For less formal tastings, still be sure to cultivate an atmosphere that offers a fun experience and offer food pairings that enhance the wine.
2. Let your tasters discover wines on their own
“The best tastings for me are when you don’t know what you will taste,” says Olivain. “You know that you will have a few whites and a few reds, but you are going to discover something new.”
Avoid giving the group too much detail about the tasting notes before they taste each wine. You could influence their perception of the wine instead of allowing them to explore it themselves.
When participants in a 2009 wine tasting experiment were given information on the wines before tasting, it influenced their thoughts. The study, published in the international research journal, “Appetite,” found that the more negative the information they were given, the lower tasters rated the wine and their experience, and vice versa.
For a winery or a wine representative, this information is invaluable when selling your wine to customers. It might be beneficial to start by mentioning the awards your wine has won. Or, start with popular characteristic of a wine that may evoke positive responses in your tasters.
3. Offer palate cleansers
Two important tools in anyone’s wine tasting arsenal are their palate and their olfactory senses, which are their sense of taste and smell. Offer bread and water for tasters to cleanse their palates between wines.
To Olivain, these two components are necessary to staging a successful tasting. “To make a perfect tasting, you need water and something to eat—but something neutral in taste. Crackers will work, but bread is better. Everything you eat or drink between wines will impact your palate.” Keep everything as neutral as possible. For example, water with lemon or lime will bring a citrus taste to the wines.
For honing the sense of smell, Olivain recommends using an aroma kit. “Aromas differ depending on the people smelling them,” Olivain explains. “But there are true aromas and aromas typical of certain varietals.”
You can use these kits to train your nose by smelling one of each scent and tying to guess the scent. “For example, if you’re tasting Sauvignon Blanc, you pick the four aromas typical of that wine: gooseberry, grapefruit fresh, cut grass, and, say, cat’s pee,” Olivain says. “It’s like a blind smelling. You smell the wine after and pick up on the scents.”
4. Avoid perfume or cologne
One imperative rule to follow when wine tasting? Avoid perfume and heavy scents at all costs. “Your nose is very sensitive to perfume, and it will interfere with the scent of the wine,” Olivain says.
Scent is strongly linked to taste. If someone is standing near you with a strong perfume while you taste wine, that perfume will overwhelm your olfactory receptor neurons—sending different signals to your brain—and can impart a harsh astringent taste to your wine.
Olivain’s no-perfume rule has been repeated everywhere, such as Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser’s wine tasting tips and tricks.
5. Select the right order for the best tasting experience
“When tasting a wine, you want to start with the wine with more acid first. For red wine, the tasting should go from less tannic to higher tannins; from younger to older, or less oaky to more oaky,” Olivain suggests.
“Maybe you [can] begin first with a 2013 Shiraz, then move on to an older Bordeaux. Your palate can process the fruit in fresh and young wines and, frequently, old wines can be dry and thirsty because of the tannins. If you start with an older wine, the residue of that wine will interfere with the profiles of a younger red.”
6. Mix up regions or varietals
Variety within a wine tasting is key to keeping participants happy and to making sure you have something to suit every taste. Mixing up the regions or varietals of wines keeps your tasting fresh and interesting. For example, tasting three different Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa valley will be much less interesting than tasting a Cabernet, a Pinot Noir and a Shiraz from the same region.
If you are a wine representative or a vineyard owner whose tastings are limited to your specific products, you can still present an array of your wines in a tasting and keep it interesting.
7. Limit the number of wines on your tasting menu
Tastings should have no more than six wines: three reds and three other wines, either whites, sparkling or Rosé wines.
Limiting the number of wines will keep your guests’ palates working at full capacity without being overwhelmed. If you are a wine seller, limiting your tastings to six wines makes it easier for guests to keep track of which wines they liked and may make purchase decisions easier.
This six-wine limit is also beneficial to beginners who wish to host a private wine tasting. By keeping the wines down to six, your tasting will be more organized and you can keep the budget a bit lower.
8. Finish strong
While order is important when tasting, it’s sometimes beneficial to finish with a kick. Olivain recommends concluding your tasting with a powerful and expressive white wine, such as a strong Chardonnay or a sweet wine. This little trick can make you appreciate everything you’ve tasted.
“When you try the reds, your palette works hard, so you should drink water, eat bread, and then sample something opposite,” Olivain says. “This is like a rebirth for the tastebuds.”
9. Have fun
Whether you’re hosting an informal tasting among friends or a professional wine tasting, you want the event to be informative, memorable and above all, fun! “If you want to be good, you have to taste the wine, Olivain says. “But it is also a matter of passion… You have to enjoy it!”
What tips and tricks do you use to host successful wine tastings?
About the author: Ariel Berchtold is a freelance writer with a passion for wine, food and travel. She’s currently backpacking the world with her husband. Follow their adventures at scenicroutehome.com.