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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I’m going to my first wine-tasting party in a couple weeks, and I don’t know how to act, as I know nothing about wine tasting. The party is to taste red wine, but I’m a sweet white wine drinker when I do drink wine. I really like most Rieslings and some other sweet whites I don’t remember. What should I look for in a red to enjoy myself at this event?
—Paul L., Alpine, Calif.
Your question is really two in one: how do you participate in a public tasting, and how do you transition your white-wine experience to tasting reds? So let me tackle each separately.
As far as how to act at a wine tasting, my best advice is to relax. Hopefully there won’t be any know-it-alls in attendance, and everyone will be there just to get a chance to try a bunch of wines together and talk about them. It’s unlikely that anyone would try to put you on the spot beyond asking you what your favorite wine is and encouraging you to share your thoughts about the wines you’re tasting.
To help you concentrate, take only small pours of wines, and only small sips. Use a spit bucket if one is provided, so you don’t get too relaxed. (Spit buckets are more common at trade events than at private parties, but if one’s there, it’s good practice to use it—those small sips can add up fast.)
Start with one wine and then compare it to another. Did you like wine A more or wine B? Then move on to the next, and hopefully you’ll stay sharp enough to eventually go back to wine A—even if just to smell it—to confirm your impressions. When tasting multiple wines, it helps to rely on your nose.
Hopefully there will be a way to take notes. I find it really helpful—especially at the beginning of your wine exploration—to write down anything and everything that comes to mind when you’re tasting a wine, even if it’s simply “just OK” or “yuck.” If the smell of a wine reminds you of bubble gum or a hamster cage, take note of that. It might help you to look at a wine aroma wheel or read some of our tens of thousands of tasting notes to get a sense of the vocabulary that people use when they talk about wine. Every wine lover has their own descriptive style, but it might be helpful to think of all the different ways a wine can be “fruity” before you begin.
As far what to look for in a red, you’ll probably find that compared to the whites you’ve been drinking, most red wines will feel heavier and fuller in your mouth, and they might seem drying from their tannins, which are more present in reds than in whites. Take plenty of sips of water between each wine, and nibble on a cracker or piece of bread if the tannins start to seem overwhelming. (Like spit buckets, plain crackers and water may be more typical of a professional tasting than a home event. By all means, follow the lead of your hosts, but be aware that strongly flavored foods are likely to alter your perceptions of the wines you taste with them.)
Whether red or white, you should be looking for wines that give you pleasure, or pause, or both. If you keep tasting (and keep taking notes!) you’ll develop your own preferences over time, and a way to express them. I’ll also mention that members of WineSpectator.com can take advantage of the course offerings in our online Wine Spectator School, including our "ABCs of Wine Tasting" class.
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