How to run a wine tasting
Some advice on setting up a fun, educational wine tasting for non-experts, including advice on the wines to choose

For normal people, there's something a bit comical about wine tasting. While people are happy to drink wine, and even be a little bit curious about it, the thought of tasting it and then talking about the different smells and flavours, or trying to write a tasting note, is just one step too far.

One of the difficulties is the lack of vocabulary we have for tastes and smells. We experience them, we recognize them, but there seems to be a block between this experience and coming up with words to describe it. So one of the big hurdles in wine appreciation is developing such a vocabulary, so that we can describe wine in words. This helps us communicate to others what a wine tastes like, and it also helps us to communicate to ourselves: one of the reasons I write notes is so I can go back to them and see just what my experience of a certain wine was.

Here, I'm going to give my guidelines for how to run a wine tasting for non-experts. Of course, you could just open some bottles and drink them. But the goal of this tasting is for it to be fun, and also highly educational. It's meant for those who've never really done anything like this before, and I'm deliberately choosing a diverse set of wines that should put down some useful taste markers and act as anchor points for future wine tasting experiences. Think of them as the corner bits on a jigsaw puzzle: a good place to start.

The grape variety is a good place to begin when it comes to understanding wine, but I must emphasize that it's not the only way, and not all wines made from the same variety taste similar. So most of these wines are made from a single variety. The wine recommendations are deliberately generic so that wherever you are you stand a good chance of being able to source candidate bottles. So, here goes.

First, you'll need some glasses. As this is an introductory tasting, pretty much any glass will do, but some glasses are much better than others. Try to find glasses with a reasonably big bowl, made of thin glass with a thin rim, and one that is wider in the middle than at the top: a tulip shape is ideal. Also, beware glasses that smell. Make sure the glasses are clean and odour free, and free of soap residue. If necessary rinse them out with water first and dry them with a clean cloth or kitchen roll before use.

One glass per person is fine. You don't need to rinse glasses out before pouring the next sample, unless the wine style has changed dramatically (for example, sweet to dry, or red to white).

Obviously, try to get the wines at the right sort of temperature for tasting. For whites, fridge temperature might be a little too cool, and for reds, room temperature might be a little too warm. Aim for 8 degrees for whites and 18 degrees for reds, but don't worry about getting it exact. If you need to chill down whites fast, a container filled with ice plus water is faster than ice alone, and if the bottle is only partly submerged invert it a few times to mix the colder and warmer wine before pouring.

For pouring measures, somewhere between 40 and 50 ml of each wine per person is ideal – a double shot. It's enough to taste and linger over for a while, and you'll get around 16 pours from a bottle. It's worth doing a trial so you get an idea of what this volume looks like in the glasses you are using.

Nibbles? A good idea. Professionals probably wouldn't use them, but most normal people find that trying seven wines in a session with nothing to eat a bit weird. Anything goes, but try to avoid really strong smelling or tasting foods, and it's best to avoid cheese which will make it harder to taste reds.

Pens and paper are a good idea. It's a nice discipline to write down the sorts of tastes and smells you are getting from the wine, plus how it feels in the mouth, plus more general impressions and – of course – whether or not you liked it.

Which wines? I'm picking wines that have a point to prove, and which should be easy to find at just under £10/$15 a bottle.

1. We'll start with Sauvignon Blanc, and I'd recommend a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region. I always like to start here, because this is a very distinctive sort of wine style and most people can get some of the typical flavours when they taste what's in their glass. This is a clean, dry style of wine with keen acidity. There are often flavours of elderflower, gooseberry, green pepper, tomato leaf, lemons and even passionfruit. The overall feeling is one of 'greenness'. Good examples should show a balance between the ripe fruity flavours and the greener notes. Specific recommendations: Brancott, Villa Maria or Oyster Bay, all of which should be easy to find.

2. An oaked Chardonnay. Chardonnay is a very popular white grape variety and it provides a brilliant contrast to Sauvignon Blanc, because it has much broader, fatter flavours. It also has an affinity for being fermented and aged in oak barrels, which give some extra character to the wine. So look out for pretty much any Chardonnay that is 'wooded', or 'barrel fermented', or 'oak aged'. Expect to find flavours of nuts, toast, pears, peach, citrus, vanilla, cream and ripe apples. You might not get all these flavours in any particular wine, of course, but these are good starting thoughts.

3. A dry Riesling. Riesling is such a distinctive grape variety, and it makes wines with a range of sweetness levels. Here, we're looking at dry Riesling because it's easier for novices to get their heads around. The key flavour here is lemon/lime, which is the hallmark of Riesling, and this is best found in dry examples from Australia or Alsace. But you could go to Germany for an off-dry Riesling, such as the easily found, inexpensive Dr L Riesling from Loosen in the Mosel, which shows off lovely pure lemony fruit with a hint of sweetness balancing out keen acidity. Riesling is almost always unoaked, and has lovely pure fruit flavours with keen acidity.

4. Let's move to reds, and I want to start with Pinot Noir. It's one of my favourite grape varieties, and it makes lighter red wines with lovely fresh, pure cherry fruit. The best examples also have a really nice texture, with sappy, slightly green notes framing a generous ripe, sweet cherry fruit core. Think red cherries and berries, maybe even black cherries, maybe some plum, and some nice spicy notes, too. Good Pinot also has quite floral aromas. I'd recommend you look for a New Zealand Pinot Noir. Good Pinot can be really expensive, but affordable Kiwi Pinot is usually pretty good.

5. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most famous red grape variety, and this is a good one to taste because it has a very distinctive flavour signature: it tastes of blackcurrant. There are variations on these theme, however: to blackcurrant you can add plums, cedar, mint, or gravel, or chalk, or spice, or tar. It also often has a slightly green edge to it. Choose a Chilean Cabernet for the tasting, not because they are the best but because they often show this blackcurrant aspect at its most pure. Chilean Cabs often have a bit of black fruit pastille-like flavour, too.

6. Finally, Shiraz or Syrah, the same grape variety under different names. It's a bit of a chameleon grape and can do well in a range of climates, from cool to hot, producing different wines in each. Let's opt for Syrah from the northern Rhône, the birthplace of the grape, where it will be labelled by the appellation: for our purposes, get hold of a Crozes-Hermitage or a St-Joseph. You'll find fresh black fruits (particularly black cherry and blackberry), maybe some raspberry, and if you are lucky, some violet perfume. There might also be notes of meat and spice, but they key flavour signature should be black pepper, which is common for Syrah grown in cool climates. New Zealand Syrah also shows these features very well. However, around a fifth of a people are smell blind to the key chemical that communicates this black pepper smell, rotundone. So you might not get that!

If you have a specific retailer that you use and you want me to recommend wines for this tasting, then drop me a mail ( and I'll try to provide a shopping list for you. I'll post it here, also.


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