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Wine-Tasting Party 101

Martha Stewart Living, May 1996

Whether you are a wine novice or aficionado, a wine-tasting party is an elegant, and fun way to entertain and educate. Comparing and discussing wines with your friends at a tasting is an easy way to learn about wines. This tasting, ideal for seven or eight people, will provide you with an excellent overview of several popular and versatile wines.

Choosing the Wines
The variety of grapes such as Chardonnay, Merlot, or Zinfandel determines the wine's taste, color, and aroma. Most American wines are named for the principal grape used in making them; a European wine label can be more difficult to decipher. For this reason, beginners may want to start by tasting American wines.

For an introductory tasting, compare six wines, three white and three red, each made from a different variety of grape. For the whites, try a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a dry Riesling. For the reds, try a Pinot Noir, a Merlot, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Ask the staff in a good wine shop to help you make representative choices in your price range.

Serving the Wines
Clear crystal wineglasses are best for tasting wines; cut or colored glasses prevent you from really looking at the wine, which is an important part of the process. Traditionally, white wine is served in glasses that are a little smaller than those for red. Smaller glasses keep white wines chilled, while the larger bowls of red-wine glasses give fuller-bodied reds more room to breathe. For the tasting described above, you'll want at least three glasses per person. If you don't have separate white- and red-wine glasses, compare the three whites first, wash the glasses, then taste the reds.

Before serving, chill the white wines for 30 minutes to an hour, to a temperature of 45 degrees to 50 degrees; if they're too cold, the taste of the wine will be dulled. Red wine is served at room temperature, but if a house is particularly warm, the wine may need to be chilled slightly. Red wine should be served at a temperature of 50 degrees to 65 degrees (serve lighter wines at the lower end of that range, full-bodied wines at the higher end).

Fill the wineglasses no more than halfway. Have water and crackers or bread available for clearing the palate between sips. Once you've poured the wines, you are ready to begin the process -- but even before you actually taste the wine, there's a lot you can learn.

Appearance
Begin by looking at the wines in the glasses. Hold them up against a white surface, such as a sheet or a piece of paper. A white wine should be clear, and it will range from almost white to gold. Red wines are purple to red-brown. The deeper the color, the more full-bodied the wine.

Aroma
A wine's aroma is very telling of its taste and character. Swirl each wine in its glass, then take a deep, gentle whiff of the wine. With your guests, describe the aromas you detect. Start with general terms such as fruity, spicy, herbal, floral, and earthy, then be more specific, even creative. Good wines have a complex aroma, which is the reason professional wine tasters use such terms.

Smell each one, then go back and forth among the glasses, comparing their aromas. A subtle scent hints that the wine will be light and delicate in flavor.

At last it's time to taste the wines. Take a sip, then breathe a little bit of air into your mouth to release the wine's flavors. Take 10 to 15 seconds to move the wine through your mouth; different parts of your tongue will register different details. Ask yourself how the wine tastes and feels; when you swallow, does the flavor linger?

Here are a few things to look for in the wines described above. In the whites, the Sauvignon Blanc is light, dry, and herbal; the Chardonnay is full-bodied, creamy, and has an oaky taste from the barrels it is aged in; the Riesling is fruity and crisp. As for the reds, the Pinot Noir is fruity and light compared to the others, with a spicy taste; the Merlot is more subtle and smooth; the Cabernet Sauvignon is more complicated, evoking black currant and dried herbs.