Taking the fear out of running a wine tasting with friends
I ran a little tasting with friends the other day, something we’ve been doing for a few years now, but we were all beginners the first time. I thought it might be interesting to reflect back and share some of the ideas that work for us.
First find your Friends
We actually started out as a local authority evening class and when the teacher (the esteemed expert on German wines, Michael Schmidt) stopped running the classes, several of us decided to carry on. We kept with Thursdays and now meet once a fortnight, taking it in turns to host. Other people have joined and left over the years, but the group varies from about 6 to 12 people.
You can just taste in a pair, though, if that works better for you. Esteemed winemaker at Nyetimber, Cherie Spriggs (recent winner of International Wine Challenge Sparkling Winemaker of the Year; the first ever female and first ever winner from outside Champagne) had her first exposure to wine from her parents, who opened and discussed a different bottle every Friday evening.
Then Pick a Theme
Having a theme makes life a bit easier for the host and fun for the guests to work out (or guess!)
If the thought of picking a theme scares you, don’t worry, it can be almost anything – one of our group’s recent themes was “wines from the new Tesco Finest range”! More commonly though, someone will pick a grape variety and select different examples from around the world, or pick a region and select wines from there, there’s really no limit.
You can get wines from the supermarket or pop to your local wine merchant, who will almost certainly be willing to help find wines to meet your theme, or even suggest a theme. Maybe it’s the region you’ve been on holiday to, or one you are planning to visit. Or what about two grape varieties that often get confused? Of course if you have wines from recent visits to vineyards, that’s even better!
My themes tend to focus on or involve local wines, of course. I recently presented 6 lesser known English sparkling wines and I’ve previously offered a selection of Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio from around the world, including an English one from Stopham Estate. Another member of the group is more of an expert on Spanish wines and someone else loves Californian reds – we all learn from each other.
How many Wines?
It could be as few as 2 bottles, we find 6 is a sensible maximum. In the words of Jancis Robinson “You can learn far more by comparing two wines than by sampling just one at a time.”
As our tasting is on a “school night”, the bottles often don’t get finished, so we draw lots to take any leftovers home.
Sounds an Expensive Hobby
We split the cost of the wines between us and it normally varies between £8 and £15 per person depending on the number of people and the number of wines. We have an etiquette that if someone is thinking of bringing particularly expensive wines they raise the topic beforehand – sometimes we choose to have fewer wines to enable everyone to try somethings special without breaking the bank.
The theme, though, can be an inexpensive one, or it’s quite fun to vary the cost of the bottles – finding an inexpensive bottle you love among some more expensive ones is one of the delights of our tastings.
So that’s the wine, but what about the equipment? The amount of equipment you need is actually very little – keep reading and you’ll find a way to save even on that.
What about Food?
With people working later and travelling longer these days, it’s not always easy to eat beforehand, but that depends when your group is – ours is 7:45pm to 9:45pm, for example. The wines can also change with food, which can be very interesting.
One week I made a spaghetti bolognese to go with some Italian reds, but that’s unusual. Normally we go along the cheese & charcuterie route. I’m incredibly lucky that a couple of people in my group have recently got into bread-making – it’s nice for them to get an appreciative audience, too!
It’s entirely up to you, but we just split the cost of the wines and the host organises and pays for any food – that way no-one feels they have to lay on a great spread or contribute to something that they might not have chosen to eat.
The only rule we have is that all the wines should be tasted initially before we start on the food.
Whether you want to take notes as you smell and taste each wine or not is entirely up to you. Clearly, you will learn more if you take simple notes that you can look back on. Then again, if you’ve had a long day at work and can’t face the thought of anything that feels remotely academic, just turn up and enjoy.
It’s definitely helpful if the host produces some notes to share once you’ve tasted all the wines and guessed the theme. As you only have to do this when it is your turn to host, it’s shouldn’t be too onerous.
This is Just for Fun, Right?
A wine tasting group is definitely fun, but it can turn into something more if you want it to. As with most things, success is a matter of natural aptitude combined with hard work. Tasting a lot of wines is essential to the learning process and sociable tastings are one way to do that.
Of our group, some take it more seriously than others – one is now working for a famous wine expert, another has just got a job in the offices of one of the country’s foremost wine merchants. Others just treat it as a social occasion with a sprinkle of learning thrown in.
If you do want to take your wine tasting more seriously, then check out WSET (Wine Skills Education Trust) training offered by Enjoy Discovering Wine (Winchester, Southampton, etc) or Wine Confidence (Epsom). Several vineyards also offer WSET training including Hambledon and Hanwell Wine Estate. If none of those works for you, check out the full list of approved WSET Educators. Your own tasting group can either run in parallel to your formal wine education (as a great way to explore even more different wines) or as a great way to start and build confidence before undertaking formal training.
Within our group, we’ve all honed our knowledge, from whatever level it started, and now find it easier to choose wines we like when shopping or eating out.
Equipment for Wine Tasting
The main equipment you need is glasses – to go back to Jancis Robinson again “You need only one shape and size of wine glass, even for champagne and strong wines. The most important things are that it is plain, has a stem and goes in towards the rim so that you can safely swirl the wine and maximise its aroma.” A very popular option is the standard ISO glass – available at many places including The online Wine Gift Centre, where the current price is £18 for a box of 6.
Other bits and bobs are up to you. The Wine Gift Centre has a handy set of all you need, including bags to hide the wines, spittoon, notes and more. You can use this for your own tasting and even as a game – The Tasting Wine Game is normally £25, but use our special code WCDGAME and you’ll get £10 off!
So there you go, nothing to be frightened of and no reason not to get started now! Do let us know how you get on, we’d love to hear all about your first tasting.
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