Mulling over wine. Wine tasting for the rest of us

winetasting1a.jpgWhy make a wine tasting a stiff affair where you frown at your glass as if your life depended on it and sniff wine ostentatiously? Why not make it fun, friendly, approachable–the social glue it was before we all started taking it a bit too seriously? Shiv Singh provides guidance on how to organize and conduct a successful wine tasting for wine lovers and friends at home.

You don’t have to be a sommelier to organise a wine tasting. In fact, you don’t even need to know too much about wine. But you must plan well, collect 10-12 tasters, source appropriate wines and stage-manage the evening. Build the excitement, temper the urge to over-pontificate (here’s where spouses play invaluable roles), take your cues from the mood in the room… Here’s how.

It begins with knowing your friends and their knowledge of wine. I assume that people don’t know too much, whether they admit it or not! So, the tasting becomes a light-hearted introduction to new wines or appellations. Notice the emphasis on ‘introducing’, not ‘educating’ friends on the nuances of a 1982 Bordeaux first growth or a Chateau Montelena Cabernet. Don’t show off or you’ll turn people off.

The first step is choosing the wines. A horizontal tasting has several wines of the same vintage and varietals (grapes). So guests can compare similar wines and decide which ones they like. A vertical tasting has four or five vintages of the same wine. (This is tough with Indian wines, as sourcing older wines is a challenge. You’ll probably need to ask the producers directly for their wines.) At times, I get wines from across the world without paying attention to vintage or varietal, aiming simply to showcase wines that are representative of a terroir.

Next, wrap the wines in aluminium foil or brown bag them. By hiding labels, you conduct a blind tasting. The guests depend on their noses and taste buds to determine what wine and from where. Of course, not all of us are wine aficionados with Robert Parker noses but the drama of tasting blind and guessing is always entertaining. You’ll be surprised how often your guests get it right!

You can number each bottle to identify the preferred ones and use plastic cups to serve. Yes, wine glasses allow the wine to breath but washing them can be a hassle! Line up the plastic cups but don’t pour the wine until everyone arrives. You can uncork the bottles two hours before the tasting though, so the wines open up a bit.
In the tasting, let everyone taste the wines one by one but encourage them to go back and forth between cups, to compare. What I do is announce the tasting open and grandly pour out from the first bottle into the first set of cups. Everyone is encouraged to study the wine, swirl it to open up the aromas, sniff it by burying their noses into it and finally sip.

Studying the wine involves looking at it against the light and noting the colour and opacity of the wine. The colour typically hints at the age of the wine. Reds lose colour as they age. For example, an older red will be clearer with brownish tints. Whites in contrast gain colour with age. An older white will have a bronze gold colour or may appear amberish. The wine shouldn’t look cloudy. That’s a bad sign.

Swirling the wine does take some practise and be warned the first few attempts may result in you feeding your shirt a little bit of wine. The easiest way to swirl is to keep the wine on the table and to move the wine glass in small circles with the base. Swirling does two things. It tells you the viscosity of the wine (how full bodied it is) by virtue of how much it sticks to the side of the glass and it also opens up the aromas.

Sniffing the wine means exactly what it says.
Sniffing and this time you’re allowed to be as uncouth as you may want to. In fact, the deeper you bury your nose into the glass, the more you’ll be able to smell. Sniffing is extremely important and it can tell you whether the wine is fruity, floral, earthy, spicy, and so on. Different grapes and wines from different regions have different aromas. So the more you learn about wine, the more you’ll be able to tell just by the smell. Don’t get intimidated by this, it takes months and years to discern the different smells accurately. But it is worth focusing on as it makes drinking all the more enjoyable.

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Sipping the wine is the fun part. You can finally try the wine. Remember to take a mouthful so that it reaches all your taste buds and don’t hesitate to do a choollie with the wine either. It’ll make sure that the wine touches all your taste buds. I’ve seen many an expert taster choollie and while it is not a pleasant sight, they do so with good reason. Sucking in air as you taste (watch out for that shirt again) will further aerate the wine releasing more aromas. As you taste, you’ll want to look out for the sweetness of the wine (as opposed to the dryness) and the acidity which is the freshness feeling contributing to the wine’s crispness. Also, watch for the tannins, which are more common in the red wines than the white ones. They’re the dry astringent taste derived primarily from the seeds, grape skins and stems.

Then, they jot down their notes.
For those who are new to wine, you can list some terms to help. This way they just have to circle appropriate words. For instance, is it sweet like bubblegum, caramel or chocolate? The group can then discuss impressions and move on to the next wine…

Once the group has been through all the bottles (I usually serve 6-7), it’s time for the grand unveiling. Everyone chooses their favourites and the host uncovers each wine, tells everyone about it, explains why it was chosen, shares prices and sometimes reads out a wine critic’s tasting notes. Then follow the oohs, aahs and “I told you so” moments. This process must be efficient because everyone would have drunk a fair bit of wine (no friend of mine has ever subscribed to the notion of spitting out the wine after tasting it!) and holding everyone’s attention gets harder as the evening wears on.

That’s really all there is to it. Success lies in choosing the wines carefully, orchestrating the evening thoughtfully (humorous anecdotes help) and building the drama. If you’re not too confident, hold a dry run for your family before moving on to friends. You and your guests will learn a lot about wine not just through the tasting but also through the conversations during the tasting. If you’re looking to learn more about wine subscribe to Sommelier India. You’ll find a wealth of information on wine and wine tasting there. The Wine Society of India is worth joining too as for a competitive price it’ll send you six bottles of wine every three months with tasting notes. It’s a nice way to test your taste buds against an expert’s. And finally, NatDecants is a great website for wine reviews and food and pairing advice for wines around the world.

And remember Beethoven’s words: “A glass of wine is great refreshment after a hard day’s work.” It doesn’t have to be too much more, if you don’t want it to be.

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