Wine Tasting 101

Theme

This is the perfect wine tasting for beginners!  This will be very classy and elegant, yet a fun and easy way to learn a lot about wine in a single tasting.  By the end of this event you’ll be familiar with all the “major” white and red wines of the world, you’ll know how to tell them apart, and you’ll have discovered several great and affordable wines that we bet will soon become staples in your home!

Angle

This tasting is a “horizontal” tasting of the basic, classic wine varietals.  A “horizontal” wine tasting means you taste very different wines one after the other and learn how to tell one apart from the next.  You don’t hide the bottles (as in a “blind” tasting) because you want your guests to see what they taste and learn as they go.  The angle of the event is to educate your guests on the “must-know” types of wine and to help them learn which they prefer.  You’ll also learn what part of the world each wine is most associated with!

Sample Lineup

  1. Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($10)
  2. Chalone, Monterey Chardonnay, California ($9)
  3. Dr. Loosen, Riesling, “Dr. L,” Germany ($10)
  4. Louis Latour, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France ($13)
  5. Antinori, Santa Cristina, Tuscany, Italy ($10)
  6. Marques de Caceres, Rioja Crianza, Spain ($12)
  7. Joel Gott, Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($15)
  8. Rosemount, “Diamond Label” Shiraz, Australia ($10)

The Wines

What’s important in this tasting is the varietals, not the specific wines.  With that said, we tried to assemble a lineup above of winemakers we know and like, at price points that are perfect for an introductory tasting.  These are good wines for the money that are widely available. 

The three most important white wines to know about in the world are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling.  Serve them in order.  Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and citrusy, a great aperitif and fantastic with food.  Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white – creamy, fruity and rich.  Riesling is a sweeter but still zesty crisp white, perfect as a food pairing or on its own.  We’ve picked wines above that show off a region of the world known for producing great versions of each: New Zealand sauvignon blanc, California chardonnay and German Riesling.

We picked a lineup of the five red wine grapes that represent a complete world tour of the “basics” of red wine – pinot noir, sangiovese, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and syrah (known as “shiraz” in Australia).  But if you had to pick just two of these, you’d take pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, which we’d argue are the most important red wines in the world.  Pinot Noir, with its light, elegant tart berry flavors, is a great wine on its own or with food and is made to greatest acclaim in Burgundy, France.  Cabernet Sauvignon, by contrast, is a more full-bodied, mouth-filling wine in which rich red fruit flavors mingle with lush chocolaty tones.  Cabernet is the main grape used in the famous red blends of Bordeaux, France, but it reaches greatness on its own in Napa Valley, California. 

Depending on how many wines you want to serve, we’d round out your tasting with one or more of the following: tempranillo from Spain; sangiovese from Italy; and syrah/shiraz from down under in Australia.  Most great Spanish reds are made from tempranillo, a light-to-medium bodied, spicy and earthy wine that is the primary grape used in Spanish Rioja.  No country makes more wine than Italy, and the great reds of Tuscany (including Chianti) are based on the sangiovese grape that pairs so well with tomato-based pasta sauces.  And syrah – a full-bodied, spicy red wine, thrives in the Rhone Valley of France as well as in the big jammy reds of Australia.

Music

This is a fun, classy tasting and a wonderful way to introduce your guests to la dolce vita – wine for us has always symbolized the good life.  So we’d choose music that evokes an era of class, sophistication, romance and fun.  Start with the classic stylings of Ella Fitzgerald.  Just about every album of hers is a perfect backdrop for a wine tasting party.  Her renditions of standards like “Something’s Gotta Give,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “S’Wonderful,” “Hooray for Love,” “From This Moment On,” and “Love You Madly” are fantastic, upbeat songs to set the mood for your party.

From there, pivot to Frank Sinatra.  You know all his songs; again, we’d recommend passing by his slow ballads and emphasizing the likes of  “Come Fly With Me,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Chicago,” “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Kind of Town,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”… and of course, “New York, New York” would be a great sendoff to your event.

Pairings

You’re serving as wide a variety of wines as possible, so pick cheeses that are versatile crowd-pleasers.  We’d go with Chevre, Camembert, Manchego, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Chevre (or any goat’s cheese) is a wonderful pairing with your first wine of the night, Sauvignon Blanc.  Camembert goes well with creamy chardonnay or with pinot noir.  Manchego pairs beautifully with Tempranillo like Rioja, or with richer reds like Cabernet and Shiraz.  Another perfect pick for the big reds is Parmigiano-Reggiano, which of course will be great with the Italian sangiovese as well.  Serve with simple crackers like Carr’s Water Table crackers, or simple whole wheat digestive crackers, or with sliced baguette.

For a wine tasting party like this, we’d choose other foods that complement the wines but stay in the background; avoid big flavors that might overwhelm the lighter wines being served  We’d stay away from classic party foods like ranch dip, hummus, guacamole, or salsa.  Go instead for fruit: strawberries, grapes and dried apricots will work well and also add color to your table.  A selection of unsalted almonds and mixed olives makes a nice accompaniment to your wine and cheese party as well. 

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Tasting Notes

For your event, add to the class by printing out a tasting notes sheet with the names of the wines and space for your guests to write notes on each.  You don’t have to be a wine snob to be able to notice what a wine smells & tastes like to you, and it’s fun to write down both so you can remember later and also to notice & record differences in the wines.  Do a little research and maybe write up a little summary of each type of wine – the flavors it’s known for, the primary grape used, and the regions of the world most known for producing that varietal. 

You don’t have to spend a lot on the wines for this to be a fun and educational tasting – the wines are different enough from one another that you’ll be able to learn the basics with wines that are $10-15/bottle.  If you want to spend more, you certainly can – and if you do, work with your local wine merchant to pick versions of each wine that are well-regarded, best sellers that are widely available.

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