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Three easy themes to help sharpen your senses.
When wine pros gather in tasting groups, it’s not to ooh and ahh over exceptional bottles. OK, we do that too, but in the best-possible scenario, it’s just called “drinking.” A tasting is intended to sharpen our knowledge of a particular wine category by exploring the differences between individual bottles within it. In order to successfully corral these wines, it’s important to declare a theme. Usually, that means keeping one aspect of the wines constant, so that the other aspects can be compared.
Ask each of your invitees to come with a bottle in tow that fits your theme. Naming a maximum price point will also eliminate the possibility of someone feeling cheated because he or she brought a prized or rare bottle while others brought simpler or cheaper versions. Below are three easy examples of constants to make the most of your tasting experiment. More advanced tastings might be “vertical” – exploring vintage variances through wines from a single producer – or “horizontal” – exploring the winemaking styles of different producers within a single region in a single year.
1. Keep the grape the same
Pick a grape that’s grown in many different regions around the world – like Pinot Noir, which can be found everywhere from Burgundy, France to Aconcagua, Chile. Encourage your guests to bring a bottle from a region they’re less familiar with so that you don’t end up with 20 bottles all from Sonoma. Keeping the grape variety constant doubles the educational value of the tasting exercise. One, you’ll become more intimately acquainted with the unique characteristics of the grape (is it bright and red-fruited? Or is it rich and dark-fruited?) Plus, you’ll be able to assess the differences in that grape’s expression based on where it’s grown. It’s what we call terroir imprint. Sauvignon Blanc from a region with a warm, sunny climate won’t taste the same as Sauvignon Blanc from a cool, humid climate, for instance. In sampling the wines side by side, those nuances become clear.
2. Keep the soil the same
This is one of my favorite ways to explore the idea of minerality in wine. If you think minerality is bullshit, try tasting a Chablis next to a Sancerre. Chablis is made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the northernmost part of Burgundy, while Sancerre is a Sauvignon Blanc-based wine from the Loire. Yet, they share a cooling, chalky character that’s remarkably similar. That’s because they’re both grown on Kimmeridgian soil – a calcareous clay laced with seashell fossils. Another fun soil type that exerts a strong influence over grapes grown in it is volcanic soil, which can be found in regions as varied as Sicily, Santorini, and Spain’s Canary Islands.
3. Keep the region the same
There’s no better way to understand the scope of a region than to amass a lineup of varied bottles from one place. Interested in knowing what Bordeaux is all about? There’s more to it than just the Médoc. Try Merlot-dominant wines from the Right Bank, whites from Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers, and sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Or: see what’s going on in New Zealand. Sure, there are plenty of great Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, but the country also makes noteworthy Pinots, Chardonnays, and Syrahs.
Tip: If you schedule the tasting before dinner, you’ll have some ready-to-drink bottles already open for meal-accompaniment.