Try something different with your next party: Make it an interactive wine tasting. It’s the perfect way to discover a favorite new bottle and organize a fun night for friends. Read on for our tips on creating the ultimate tasting experience, from the wine to the party menu and details that make it special.
First Things First: The Wines
Begin by deciding which wines you want to include in the tasting. Of course, you can serve any wines you like, but it’s fun to choose a theme or select wines that have a feature in common.
Consider your guests and the setting: How much they know about wine? What styles do they enjoy? What’s the time of year (read: Is it rosé season?), and what’s the occasion? Heavy, big reds are great on a cozy evening; white, sparkling and rosé are ideal outdoors and in warm weather. A few different ways to organize your tasting include:
- By region: Choose wines from one region or appellation, such as Burgundy or Argentina.
- By varietal: Taste wines from one grape varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, from different places (i.e., Bordeaux and Napa Valley)
- By vintage: Sample wines of the same grape made in the same year by different producers (called a horizontal tasting) or in different years by the same producer (a vertical tasting).
- By price: Serve wines of the same grape (and region, if you like), but at different price points.
When in doubt, visit a wine shop and talk to someone there. Explain what you’re doing, what kind of wines you’re interested in, the price point, and let them help you build your tasting. Or, visit our Wine Store for some of our favorite picks.
Pour four to six wines for a single tasting so people can appreciate the flavors without being overwhelmed. Serve the wines in order of their weight: sparkling first, then dry whites, fuller whites, roses, lighter reds and heavier reds (or, if they’re the same grape, from lightest to biggest). You may want to buy an extra bottle of each wine for enjoying after the tasting—there are bound to be favorites!
Next, Food That’ll Stand Up (but Not in the Way of) the Wine
Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food. The perfect match can bring out subtle characteristics in a wine and enhance your tasting experience. Here are three ways to approach your party spread.
A simple, foolproof way to complement wine is with cheese. Enjoy crisp Sauvignon Blanc with soft goat cheese; pair nutty aged Parmigiano-Reggiano with a big Cabernet Sauvignon. See more tips here.
There’s a reason experts always advise sipping Champagne with smoked salmon. For a fun party idea, prepare a buffet of appetizers designed to be enjoyed with each wine you’re tasting. Serve smoked salmon on toast points with sparkling wine; Chardonnay with individual cheesy gratins; Pinot Noir with stone fruits and cured meats; and dessert wine with chocolate-caramel tartlets. Find more pairing suggestions here.
Classic pairings are tried and true, but it can also be interesting to enjoy wine with food more subjectively. For an interactive idea, set out a variety of foods with distinctive flavors instead of complete dishes: herb sprigs, raw vegetables, cured meats, cheese, salt and chocolate. As you taste the wines, taste them with each food and see how the flavors of each change. This is a great way to learn what pairings and flavors you personally prefer.
Unless you choose the classic pairings approach, you’ll need some party nibbles—light snacks so guests aren’t tasting on an empty stomach. For a tried-and-true combination, try these suggestions.
Wine Tasting Menu
The Actual Wine Tasting
The goal of a wine tasting party is not just to discover new wines you like, but also to start a conversation about wine. To get people talking, pass out a wine tasting chart or glossary of tasting terms to help people describe the characteristics they are smelling and tasting. See the 4 steps to evaluating wine. You can also create or print out scorecards for ranking the wines, so they remember their favorites.
Pour about 2 ounces of wine per glass—a standard bottle of wine contains about 25 ounces, so plan accordingly. Serve sparkling wines very cold (42-45ºF/6-7ºC) and white wines chilled to 45-50ºF (7-10ºC). Red and dessert wines are best served at a cool room temperature.
Another fun way to host a wine meet up is with a blind tasting, wherein each bottle is completely concealed during the tasting so you don’t know its varietal, vintage or producer. Place each bottle in a brown paper bag and write a number on the front of each bag. Have guests describe the wines by number, and ask them to guess what they think the varietal might be. At the end of the tasting, reveal the answers—you may even want to offer a prize to those who guess correctly. Bonus points for guessing the region or year!
When preparing your space for the party, here are a few things you may need:
- Glasses: If you’re tasting sparkling, white and red wines, it’s best to give each person a designated glass for each. For an informal tasting, it’s fine to reuse one all-purpose glass, giving guests the option to rinse it out between tastings.
- Palate Cleansers: Place a pitcher of water on the table, along with water glasses, so people can cleanse their palates between wines. Plain crackers or a baguette will help, too.
- Bucket: Set out a receptacle so guests can pour out any extra wine.
- Labels: Help everyone keep track of their glasses with paper labels, which can be placed around the base, or with festive wine charms.
- Wine pourer: Pour more precisely with a wine pourer, which also helps aerate the wine, releasing its full flavor and bouquet.
When it comes to decorating, skip fragrant floral centerpieces or scented candles, which will only compete with the aromas of the wines. (Request that your guests arrive perfume-free as well.) Rather, let food—like big bunches of grapes or a beautiful bread basket— become your centerpiece. Alternatively, if you want a natural element, arrange tall branches in vintage or glass bottles to place around the table.
Let the theme inspire the decor, too, bringing in grape and fig leaves. They are perfect for lining the platters of hors d’oeuvres and cheese. For a special touch, write out each dish with a label that’s anchored with a wine cork.