Coming up with a theme for a wine tasting requires some imagination; you have so many choices! To begin, decide whether the tasting will be vertical or horizontal.
A vertical tasting features the same brand of wine from different vintages: for example, Winery X Cabernet Sauvignons from 1995 to 2000. A horizontal tasting includes wines from different wineries that are the same type and vintage: for example, six different bottles of Alsace Gewurztraminer, each with a vintage date of 2000. A horizontal tasting can be as basic as comparing newly released varietals (like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay) that are from the same appellation or growing area. Or it can be much more complicated; it's up to you!
Many resources are available to assist in coming up with a theme. If your group is just beginning to acquire some wine knowledge, a reliable wine merchant should be happy to suggest wines that fit the theme. If you're operating within a budget, let the merchant know up front. Don't make the mistake of pumping the merchant for advice and then going to a discounter to get a cheaper price; you make no friends that way.
Perhaps the next best thing to a wine merchant is a magazine or newspaper. Such publications are usually available at newsstands and wine shops. Or go online to find a helpful site. These sources feature wine-tasting notes, sometimes with point scores or evaluation symbols, sometimes without.
Obtain the wines that fit the theme. The individual paper bag in which each wine is wrapped before it leaves the store can be used to conceal the wine's identity at the tasting. Make sure there are enough bags for all the wines (perhaps before you leave the store).
If the group can afford it, taste better-quality wines. Ordinary wines are for everyday drinking, not for group deliberation. Moderate-quality wines afford good tasting practice and can be interesting but often reflect a "sameness" that makes comparison difficult. The most vivid characteristics of a growing area or a vintage are most easily identified in a wine of higher quality.
Do some research on the wines to be tasted. Call the wineries or visit their Web sites for winemaker's production data and tasting notes. Telephone numbers and Web addresses can often be found on back labels. Also consider copying pertinent tasting notes from published sources, and distribute them at the discussion stage of the tasting.
A few weeks in advance of the tasting, the host should remind everyone of the date and time. If all or most of your friends have e-mail, this should be a quick and easy task. Include the theme of the tasting, and remind the tasters to bring their own glassware, unless the host is providing the glasses. Also request that the participants avoid wearing cologne or perfume to the event.
It's Almost Tasting Time!
If the wines are in the refrigerator, remove them about one hour before the start of the tasting so they can warm up a bit; wine that's too cold can't be adequately evaluated. Remove the foil capsules, pull the corks, and bag each wine. Secure the top of each bag with a rubber band, or simply twist the top of the bag around the neck of the bottle. Leave the task of numbering or lettering the bags to another participant (who hasn't seen the wines being bagged), so that you can taste them blind too.
Get the table area set up with enough chairs for the participants. If possible, use a white table cover to make color and clarity evaluations easier. Each place setting should have either a small spit bucket or a large plastic cup. Spitting is highly recommended to keep as clear a head as possible while all the wines are being evaluated. The group's evaluation and reporting forms should also be at each place setting.
Put out a sufficient quantity of sliced plain baguettes and pitchers of water to act as palate cleansers. A water glass at each setting is thoughtful, as is a pencil or pen. Keep the tasting area free of strongly scented things, such as flowers or cooked foods.
For some final thoughts on how to get the most out of your wine-tasting experience, see the following page.