Preparation is Essential.
Attending a tasting group is a fun and educational way to learn about diverse wine styles and producers. Groups can be organized in many ways, from formal timed-flights to single-style comparatives. Regardless of format, a successful tasting group starts with the wine itself. Follow these steps to give you and your fellow tasters the best opportunity for success.
- Research classic styles, producers and vintages.
An expansive and largely subjective topic unto itself, the world of wine is punctuated and defined by the key producers of “classic” styles. These styles are classic due to their historical relevance, global appeal and consistent character. Classic producers make top-quality wines that reflect or define these styles, and do so year after year. Classic vintages saw ideal conditions in the vineyard, resulting in wines with elevated complexity, depth and potential for aging. Think of Heavy Metal as being a classic style of music, with Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin considered classic artists.
To learn about classic wines, first study the top restaurant wine lists in the world. The collections of Canlis, Daniel and Frasca are great examples, and showcase many top styles and producers. Notice the grapes and regions commonly showcased, and the producers that command the highest prices. Bottles at the top price tier aren’t appropriate for tasting group, but lend a sense to regions which produce serious wine. Next, download the app Delectable. In addition to cataloguing your personal wine journey, Delectable has a fantastic search feature, perfect for researching producers. Input something like “Volnay 1er”, and the most widely tasted examples of Volnay 1er Cru Burgundy Pinot Noir will appear. Most Old World wines are not listed by grape variety but region, so some theory will be needed. New World wines typically state the variety, so “Chelahem Pinot” will list popular Pinot Noir from the Chelahem Mountains in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Stay simple with search terms, and don’t worry about accent marks, the app will account for them automatically.
To learn about the oceanic topic of vintages, first cross-reference the charts from Jancis Robinson and Berry Brothers & Rudd. Largely, vintages are more important when considering older age-worthy wines, such as Barolo and Vintage Champagne. These wines are built to last, and strong vintages can result in epic examples, albeit with a firmer price tag. If a vintage is profoundly poor, some top-tier producers will scrap the lot entirely for the sake of protecting their style. Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes is a notable example, with no 2012 vintage produced. Vintage quality is less of a concern with wines commonly consumed in youth, including many fresh white wines and low-alcohol reds. Incidentally, a classic producer can often make the best of a challenging vintage via fruit selection and vineyard management, resulting in mystical juice. In the end, take vintage selection with a grain of Lava Salt, and focus on producer quality.
A comprehensive list of classic wines by Medium Plus is in the works, so stay tuned.
- Purchase the wine, and look into its finer details.
When searching for a specific wine from local retail stores, both plan ahead and call ahead. Avoid harrowing situations like waiting until 4pm the day before a morning tasting group to find a Grand Cru Alsace Muscat, which can be overcome but not easily. If your tasting is on a Friday, shop for your wine on Tuesday. Call ahead to make sure what you want is in stock. Over time, you will learn which retail stores have strong regional selections, at the best prices. Rare wines like old Burgundy and Barolo may be impossible to find in your area, thus an internet gamble may be necessary. Use these sites at your own risk. The Delectable app offers many classic wines for sale, although their service has not been tested by Medium Plus, and prices can be on the high side.
Key details like assemblage, oak treatment and winemaking style can heavily affect the result of a wine, and should be considered before bringing an unfamiliar producer to tasting group. Bring your phone to the store, and find the website of the producer or importer. Try searching “Muga Reserva PDF” to see an example of a producer fact sheet.
Stay tuned for a list of top Seattle wine retail shops, by Medium Plus.
- Store wine at proper temperature.
Once your wine is at home, store it at the proper temperature if possible. 57 degrees Fahrenheit is a good cellar temperature for all wines, although whites should be brought to tasting group cold, closer to 45 degrees. If you do not have a cellar or wine fridge, short-term storage in your kitchen fridge is better than variable room temp. Remember to bring any reds out 4 hours before service to warm up. For readers in Seattle wishing to store wine long-term at a secure facility, check out The 47 Wine Storage. Located near Downtown Seattle, they are real pros, and can accommodate collections of all sizes. Mention Medium Plus for a special new-member offer.
- Remove the price tag from the bottle.
Eventually, the wines at tasting group will be revealed, and any blatant indication of price can cloud the atmosphere. Expensive tags can make others feel self-conscious about their selections, and low-price bottles can appear puny amongst well-heeled peers. Well-known producers will stand out regardless, but in the world of wine, humility is key. Most classic wines can be found for $25-60 retail, so stick with that and everyone will be happy.
- Open the wine.
Opening a wine at home will allow for many necessary steps to take place, including proofing and changing the cork. Prevent an open wine from leaking during transport by using a handy wine-carrying bag found at most grocery stores.
- Decant if necessary.
Heavily pigmented and/or aged wines both benefit from decanting. Frankly, most wine can benefit from some aeration, even in youth. Wines under screw cap can happily blow off sulphur if shaken vigorously (the Molly Dooker Shake) or decanted.
- “Proof” the wine.
Like many a long-haired casino band, wine can go bad over time. Premox, Cork Taint, Maderization and the like can strike and remain hidden. Rather than face embarrassment and disappointment in front of wine-group peers, check that juice at home to make sure it is both clean and showing well. The wine will remain fresh if proofed two hours before tasting group, which will allow time to find a replacement if necessary.
- Conceal the bottle.
Do not expose a blind wine too early, as it will ruin the surprise. Haven’t you ever watched Punk’d? Keep that wine under cover using a paper bag at minimum. Decorative silken bottle-shawls and zippered neoprene wetsuits can up the personal style quotient. Ghetto foil-jobs have a tendency towards error, and telegraph bottle shape too obviously.
- Remove the foil and any seals from the bottle.
Nothing can spoil a blind tasting like an accidental reveal early-on. Colorful capsules and prominent DOCG seals can blow the cover of an otherwise concealed bottle. Carefully remove the entire foil and discard, even on screw cap bottles. Use extreme caution though, as the foil can cut like a jagged razor and ruin your day.
- Swap the cork.
In the vein of vinous anonymity, change out the cork on the bottle on tasting day. Most corks and screw caps of quality wines have an indication of producer or at least region, and can reveal the wine in the same way as the foil. Keep used corks of various sizes from previous tastings on hand, or raid the cork recycling at Whole Foods to stock up.
The above list is an exhaustive and detail-obsessed approach, suitable to those with an eye for perfection. Try applying even a few of the above tips, and fellow tasters will look on with wonder and admiration.