|Learning about wine is challenge enough; what with all the books and notes, new releases and old vintages. What's even more of a struggle is when you get to a tasting and you have absolutely no idea what to do. Here we take you through some different styles of tastings and a few dos and don'ts to make sure your next tasting is a good one.
First up, we are talking about tastings, not drinking. It's to 'see' a wine, not consume it. You may well indeed be able to drink for God and Country but this is an exercise in expanding or gaining some knowledge on a particular wine, not on how many drinks you can consume before you're wearing your wobbly boots. The type of tasting you may have to attend can vary, as can what is expected of you each time. Here we have a look at the different types of tastings and also what you're supposed to do at each.
Expos: Due to the sheer size of these events it's best you do some research before you get in there. It is impossible to taste all the wines in such situations (though many a hero has tried) so you need to know what you want and where it is. Find the wines you might not usually have access to, the ones you can't afford or the ones that are kinda rare, and taste them while you have the opportunity. As well as an entrance fee, you may have to pay another, usually steep, fee for your own tasting glass. Do not put this down, do not lose it and do not loan it to anyone. At wine expos, these things are like gold. Oh, and have some respect for the poor sods pouring the wine who have probably been there for days without a break and who have usually heard it all before.
Formal tastings: These are usually organised with a very specific theme. It may be the same wine over ten vintages or perhaps the same variety from different regions. Whatever the reason, you will have a host, often the winemaker, who will be take you through and discuss each of the wines as you go. Most times you will be given a full set of glasses, a tasting notes sheet, a nearby spittoon and a dump bucket for the wine you don't drink. These are usually great opportunities to learn through comparisons. They'll help to hammer home many subtle differences between wines that you usually think are quite similar.
Shop tastings: Usually very casual and of course, with the aim of getting you to buy the wine you're tasting. Good wine retailers will hold tastings quite often and can feature some pretty special wines. It's a good way to learn in an informal setting and also to get to know your local wine merchant - a very useful person if you plan to cultivate and invest in your love of wine.
Wine classes: Probably the best place to start your tastings because you have access to a teacher, you are not expected to know how to do anything except hold a glass and most people are at the same level of learning as you. The usual set up is still like that of a formal tasting (glasses, tasting notes and a specific tasting order) but the atmosphere is usually a lot more fun.
Cellar Door: Tasting wine at a cellar door is more of an open slather. You can pretty much start where you want in the order of wines, ask questions if you want, maybe even buy a teaspoon from the gift shop while you are tasting. At smaller wineries you may even get to meet the winemaker and get them to take you through a few wines. Expect to pay a couple of bucks at some cellar doors for tasting but this is usually taken off the bottle price if you buy.
Make Sure You...
Ask questions: Don't for a minute think people in the wine industry don't want to talk about wine. Hell, no. Except for the odd winemaker who'll mumble and kick the dirt when put under such pressure, the rest are just frothing at the mouth and longing for someone to ask them a question, allowing them to impart some of their vast knowledge. The line "Excuse me, can I just ask…" to a wine head is like dressing in a brightly coloured and ornate suit, arching your back and waving a red flag to a bull. Fire away, they love that stuff.
Listen: It really is the smartest way to learn. Wine can be a pretty boring subject at times, especially if you're relying on text books and other printed material. When you allow someone else to bang on about wine for a bit, you cut through all the fodder and, if you're lucky, get a summarised version of an often very lengthy topic. And if it is told to you with an entertaining story and by a memorable character, you are far more likely to remember it. No matter how many classes or how often you taste, you will always learn something new. Wine's like that.
Watch the order of service: At more formal tastings or wine classes, you may have your glasses lined up on a numbered sheet of paper. Wines are usually tasted or grouped into a particular order to get the maximum tasting benefit and the most obvious characters out of them. Depending on what you are tasting, the order of wine will usually follow in one of three orders: lighter bodied wines to heavier ones (so that the first wine you taste does not overwhelm the next one); younger vintages through to older ones (assuming the older vintages are better and more exciting, this gives you something to look forward to); or dry wines before sweet wines (sweet wines are a little cloying in your mouth and make it difficult to taste anything else afterward). It is best to stick to the order set out at your tasting, especially if someone is taking you through each wine - it is bound to make more sense that way.
Spit: Like I mentioned earlier, you're there to taste and learn, not get slaughtered. There is no other reason for spitting out perfectly good wine except that you will stay sober, be able to operate a moving vehicle and it will prevent you from losing your inhibitions and trying to crack on to your wine teacher. Spittoons are always provided at tastings and unless you have been practicing for years, you will probably dribble a bit. Not to worry, like the dentist's assistant always said, "Just have a wipe before you sit up".
Refresh: By taking a sip of water or chomping on a piece of plain bread or crackers, you kind of absorb some of the left over wine in your mouth, clearing the way for all the fabulous flavours of the next wine. Not essential, it just helps.
Take Notes: They may not be legible to anyone else, and they may be as far from a professional's tastings notes as riesling is from shiraz, but you my friend, are not a professional and your notes were written by you, for you, to tell you what you thought about the wine, if you would buy it and how it tasted to you. When someone is paying you to judge a wine, then you can worry about your notes.
Think about it: To form an opinion on anything you need to assess the things you like and dislike about it. What is it about the wine that you like? What do you hate? What are your thoughts? Would you buy it? What does it taste, feel and smell like? These are all questions you need to ask yourself with each wine. If you're having a crack at it for the first time, you might not know the answers to any of these questions but it will make you more aware and over time, this awareness is what will help you understand things better. Even the Dalai will tell you that.
Have a go: Remember that at the beginning, everyone feels like a clumsy heathen dripping and dribbling their way through their first tasting. But once you overcome those insecurities and get into a bit of a tasting rhythm, the exciting and adventurous world of wine will open up and draw you in. Go on, I dare you.