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Comparing Notes: Wine-Tasting Party

Martha Stewart Living, March 2009

Our parents pleaded with us to take skiing and tennis lessons when we were kids, to no avail. We knew just enough about those sports to get by in them, and that was plenty for us.
One great insight we've achieved in adulthood -- finally! -- is that the more we throw ourselves into our pursuits, the more fun they become.

Our wine education, much of it self-directed, has certainly borne that out. Some of our most informative "classes" have been tasting parties we've organized ourselves. These events, a what's-not-to-love combination of good drinking and good company, offer the chance to compare several wines side by side. Everyone in the group can broaden his knowledge, no matter what his experience level.

We typically begin our tastings with an hour of focused sipping and discussion, and then segue into a simple, wine-friendly supper. The right mood -- relaxed but not hushed -- encourages everybody to put words to the aromas and flavors they pick up from different wines. ("I'm getting hints of citrus -- anybody else?") Articulating and sharing these impressions is a great way to tune in to your taste buds and pinpoint which qualities in a wine appeal to you most. At our parties, we provide pencils and pads so that everyone can take notes.

For a wine tasting to have focus, the selections need a framework of some kind. There are many classic lineups, but the basic idea is to find a group of wines (maybe four to six) that have a common thread. When you drink them in sequence, their differences will be thrown into high relief. Potential wine tastings include:

Varietal Tasting
This grouping is built around a single grape, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and the examples are drawn from fabled growing regions of that varietal. A selection of Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand's Marlborough region, France's Sancerre, and Chile's Valparaiso would make a vivacious spring tasting.

Regional Tasting
This roundup lets tasters delve into the wines of a particular region. Sampling wines from Portugal's Estremadura coast can be a revelation, even to serious wine buffs. The area has long been known for producing oceans of undistinguished wine, but its producers have come far in the past several years.

Vertical Tasting
A group of wines identical in every way but vintage. Sampling bottles of the 1985, 1996, and 2006 Lynch-Bages Pauillac would be an exhilarating, unforgettable experience. (Pricey, yes, but less expensive than the airfare to Bordeaux!)

Ad Hoc Tasting
It's always fun to invent a rationale: "some wines we brought back from our summer trip to New York's Finger Lakes," or "red wines I'm considering serving at my sister's 40th birthday party." The most revealing tastings tend to be blind ones, in which paper or cloth bags are placed over the bottles. The senses can't be swayed by names or labels, only by aroma, color, and flavor. Wine retailers offer a variety of party kits, complete with bottle covers.

At our tastings, we serve crackers and plenty of water for cleansing the palate and rinsing glasses between pours. We also provide a stainless steel wine bucket (or two) so that guests have somewhere to discard any wine that remains in their glass as they go from one selection to the next. That said, there's no need to pour much: An appropriate tasting sample is two or three sips' worth.

The moment after the "reveal," when the covers are taken off the bottles and dinner hits the table, is one of the best and most instructive of a tasting. That's when you return to your favorite wine of the night to pour a glass and sip it purely for enjoyment.

Variations on a Varietal
Cabernet Franc is usually encountered in red Bordeaux wines, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But on its own, the grape can yield wines of astonishing complexity. You'll find some wild cards in this lineup, including a rose and an ice wine. There's also a red herring: an Austrian red made from Blaufrankisch grapes.

United States
The electric watermelon color of Chimney Rock Winery's Rose of Cabernet Franc (2007, $18) belies a balanced, subtle wine with floral and cranberry notes. It's made from grapes grown in the Napa Valley's Stags Leap District.

Canada
Legends Estates Winery, whose vineyards hug the shore of Lake Ontario, leaves Cabernet Franc grapes on the vine to freeze, then presses them to make ice wine (2006, $63), a syrupy, concentrated sip that conjures candy-apple flavors.

France
Old vines that grow in the sandy clay of Anjou's Coteaux du Layon appellation yield Chateau de Fesles Cabernet Franc Vieilles Vignes (2006, $13), a wine of deep plumminess and round richness.

Canada
At the easternmost edge of the Niagara Peninsula, Stratus Vineyards produces this rich Cabernet Franc (2005, $36) suggestive of red berries and black pepper.

Austria
Austria's Carnuntum region produces the grapes pressed to create Walter Glatzer's Blaufrankisch (2006, $17). The wines layered impressions of bay leaf, minerals, and blackberry fooled us into thinking we were tasting a Cabernet Franc.

United States
Breaux Vineyards' Lafayette (2005, $19) is a nicely balanced Cabernet Franc made from grapes grown in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in Northern Virginia. It has appetizing tannins, moderate oak, and flashes of red currant and black pepper.