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How to Host a Wine Tasting, Part 1: Tasting Order

Posted by on 8/30/2015

Hosting a wine tasting at your bar or restaurant can often seem like an intimidating and daunting task, particularly if you are not an expert in all things wine-related. With thousands of years of history and countless wine companies and brands to investigate, even thinking about tapping into the wine industry can seem like an overwhelmingly complex endeavor. But while putting together a good wine tasting does take a bit of time and planning, it can actually be much more manageable than many people may think.

The first and most important concern as you plan your wine tasting is, of course, the wine itself. While the atmosphere of the tasting is important (more on that later), the wine is ultimately why people are there, and even the most impressive of presentations is not likely to save a hastily constructed wine selection. The first two things to consider when building the event’s tasting progression are theme and number of wines. While a theme (i.e. wines from the same country or region, wines of the same type, wines made using a similar method of preparation, etc.) is in no way necessary for a good tasting, it can help to make selecting wines easier by quickly narrowing your options. Deciding early on the number of wines also provides a limiting factor to keep the selection process focused. Five or six wines is a good starting point for most bar settings, as it allows for a good amount of variability between tasting events and offers visitors a substantial selection without turning the tasting into a long, “all-evening” event. Also keep in mind that you will need to buy several bottles of each wine on offer, and while it may be tempting to dress your tasting to impress with a vast selection of different wines, doing so may not be cost effective. A smaller, carefully considered selection of wines can have just as much appeal as the more sprawling, option-heavy environments of commercial wine tastings.

That being said, offering fewer options to your tasters means that your wine order is responsible for carrying your visitors through the experience. First impressions are critical if you hope to make wine tastings a regular part of your establishment’s community, but a bit of care and attention will ensure that your tasting is a success.  Here are a few basic guidelines to follow when putting together your line-up:

Know your grapes

If you are planning on making wine tastings a regular part of your business model, take some time to learn about the different kinds of wine grapes, which wines are made from what grape, the basics of the wine-making process, and what sort of things to look for when tasting a wine. A bit of research into wine history (which grapes are native to what geographical region, which wines originated in what country, etc.) helps a lot, too. Arming yourself with some basic wine knowledge will make browsing and searching for wines a much smoother experience.

Whites before reds

This is one of the most common rules associated with wine tastings. Red wines generally have higher tannin contents than whites, which gives them a more astringent and lingering mouthfeel that can interfere with the lighter taste of white wines. The more gentle flavors of white wines make them ideal starter wines, and although there may be the occasional exception, whites should almost always be served before reds.  Rosé should be served in between white and red wine.

Light to heavy

Along with rule number 2, this is one of the most important guidelines in wine selection. Make sure that “big” wines with bold, heavy bodies (such as cabernet and shiraz/syrah) are served late in the progression, as they tend to linger on the palette and can corrupt the flavor of ensuing wines if served too early.

Sweet wines last

Always save sweet wines for the end of the tasting. Finishing off your progression with a tantalizing moscato is a great idea, but the residual sugars left from serving sweet wines too early will accentuate the acidity of the drier wines in your line-up and make them harder to enjoy.

Sparkling wines first

Serve sparkling or effervescent wines at the beginning of their color. Sparkling red wines tend to be less common than sparkling whites, and although it may seem intuitive to serve sparkling wines together, sparkling reds should still be saved for the beginning of the red wine section of your tasting order.

Everything before fortified wines

In the event that you want to serve a fortified wine such as port or sherry, always save it for absolute last. Fortified wines are – as their name suggests – wines that have been “fortified” by the addition of a distilled spirit (usually brandy), and their higher alcohol content can “burn out” the olfactory system and dull the flavor of following wines if served too early.

Get familiar with your selection

While it will involve more upfront investment, always try to personally taste the wines that you are considering serving if you are unfamiliar with their flavors, especially when you are first starting out. If something in your progression tastes out of place, it probably is. Take some time to learn about the history and production of each wine, and try for yourself to identify some of its more prominent flavors before serving it to your guests or customers. Being able to offer a brief overview of the wine as you serve it really helps to draw tasters into the experience and give the tasting a feel of thoughtful professionalism. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of all the wines on offer, but you should be comfortable enough with each wine to answer basic questions as they come up. It is inevitable that you will not always have time to prepare for every wine in every tasting, and most reasonable patrons will understand this, but researching your wines when you are able to do so really helps to add a sense of cohesion and immersion to your tastings.

Following these guidelines will give you a solid framework for constructing your wine order. But while your wine selection is the motive force behind your tasting, the atmosphere and setup of your tasting area are also key factors to hosting an inviting and engaging wine tasting. Part 2 of this post will discuss what you will need to provide a comprehensive wine tasting experience, how to display your wines, and suggestions on maintaining a unique, yet professional tasting atmosphere. Be sure to check in soon for our next post – How to Host a Wine Tasting Part 2: Layout and Ambiance.

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