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TIPS & HINTS FOR LEADING A TASTING

Introduction

There is no set pattern for the club’s tastings but, over the years, we’ve gained some experience of what works well.  Leading a tasting can be a bit daunting, particularly the first time, but most people find it an interesting and rewarding experience.  These notes are intended to give some hints and tips to make the whole process a bit easier.

Choice of topic

The club sets a programme of tasting topics at the start of each year.  If there is a topic you are particularly interested in covering, then it’s easiest to suggest that as a topic for next year’s programme.  However, each year there are some unassigned topics where we’re looking for volunteers to lead the tasting and it can be fun to take on one of those.  Some topics are fairly general and can be taken in a number of different directions.  Others may be on a topic where no-one in the club has any particular knowledge and you can be a pioneer, researching that area and helping educate everyone else.

 

Research

 

Obviously a bit of research is needed to start working out the sort of wines to include in the tasting and the internet is an obvious starting point.  The best approach will depend on the subject.  If the tasting relates to a particular country or region, then most wine-growing areas have promotional sites which explain the history of viticulture in the area and the grape varieties grown.  If the tasting is based on a particular grape variety, then that will be the thing to research with the aim of finding out where in the world it is grown.

The web-site of Decanter magazine - https://www.decanter.com/ - has a lot of useful information, particularly in its “Learn” section.  Some of the wine merchants mentioned below also give quite a lot of information about different wine regions on their sites.

Selection of wines

 

The number of wines included in a tasting is generally 10-12 (depending on budget and number of attendees).  If the tasting is based on a single grape variety, then the types of wine it is possible to include will depend on the range of wines made from that grape.  For other topics we usually aim for a roughly equal split of white and red wines with the occasional inclusion of fizz, rosé wines and dessert wines, if they are relevant to the topic.  Thus for a tasting based on a region making a wide range of wines, the selection might be something like a fizz to start, 4 white wines, 5 reds and a dessert wine.

Generally, the budget allows a spend of around £15 per bottle as a rule of thumb and most bottles will fall in the £10-20 bracket.  Some higher priced wines can be included, if the budget permits, and it is fine to go below £10 if there are good examples available (for, example, that have been well-reviewed in the wine press).  The aim should be, however, to find good quality wines that relate to the topic, not choose a lot of “everyday” wines at £7.99 from the supermarket.

Budget and wine purchase

The budget will depend on the number of attendees.  If 12 people are attending the budget will be around £160 which will enable 10 or 11 wines averaging around £15 per bottle to be included.  If 16 are attending then the budget will be around £240 which would enable 12 wines to be included, with some more expensive wines so the average is closer to £20 per bottle.  (It is not vital to be exactly on budget for any particular tasting, as there is a bit of “give and take” between tastings and some topics will tend to need more expensive wines than others).

The number of attendees is confirmed on the 1st of the month of the tasting.  Prior to that date, it is wise to keep a bit of flexibility in the wine line-up (possibly with some more expensive and less expensive choices for some wines) so that you can refine the list to match the budget and number of attendees, once that number is known.

The best range of wines to meet your requirements will probably be found from the major wine merchants who all offer on-line services and quick delivery.  It’s probably best to avoid dealing with too many different merchants for any particular tasting, or you can find the budget being eaten up with delivery charges (usually there is free delivery above a minimum spend and this can, of course, be an opportunity to top-up your personal supplies at the same time!).

Merchants with wide-ranging lists include Berry Brothers & Rudd (www.bbr.com), Tanners (www.tanners-wines.co.uk) and the Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com).  For the latter you need to be a member to order but there are people in the club who are members and could order wines for you.

If your topic relates to a particular country or region, you will often find a specialist on-line retailer who specialises in the relevant country or region.

Locally, Majestic has a good range and Waitrose and M&S have some interesting wines towards the top of their ranges. All three also offer a wider range of wines on-line.  Local independents Ian Smith (Magdalen Road), Topsham Wines and Christopher Piper (Ottery St Mary) all have interesting wines from smaller producers.

Finally, Amazon carries a wide range of wines and can be a useful source of odd bottles to complete a tasting line-up.

Order of wines and tasting sheets

 

Once you have selected your wines you need to decide the order in which they should be presented to best illustrate the themes of your tasting.  As a general rule, we find the order: fizz, white, rosé, red, dessert works best (obviously you wouldn’t necessarily have a wine of every type in every tasting).  Within the white and red categories, it is really up to you but a “lighter to heavier” approach usually works well as a rule of thumb.  If your first red is a full-blown Oz shiraz at 15.5% abv, then a light-bodied pinot noir served after is likely to be rather over-shadowed!

You need to produce “advance” and “final” versions of tasting sheets.  The “final” version has 4 columns: the name of the wine and producer; grape varieties used in the wine; factual details – price, %abv, and stockist; and a tasting note.  The tasting note can be produced from a combination of the information on the label, the wine merchant’s notes on the wine, and any on-line reviews you can find of the wine (the latter are particularly useful as they are more objective than the wine-maker’s glowing assessment of their own wine!).  There are lots of examples in the Archive section of the club’s web-site you can use as a guide.

The “advance” sheet is essentially the same thing but with the price deleted from the third column and the tasting note column left blank.  It is a club tradition to guess the prices of wines at a tasting (and not revealing the price avoids people having preconceptions that an expensive wine must be good – and vice-versa) and people should form their own views of the wines and make their own tasting notes at the tasting without being biased by the opinions of the wine-maker and merchants.

Both sheets should be provided to Sarah as soon after the 1st of the month of the tasting as possible.  She will issue the “advance” sheet by e-mail ahead of the tasting and add the “final” version to the club on-line archive after the tasting.

Sarah will organise a selection of cheese and biscuits to accompany the wines.  If there are any particular cheeses (e.g. those local to the region from which your wines come) which you think would be particularly appropriate, then please liaise with her.

The tasting itself

It’s a good idea to arrive at least 15 minutes early so you can get yourself organised.  Store any wines that need to be served chilled in the fridge overnight, then bring in an insulated bag until needed.  If any reds need decanting that’s best done a couple of hours before the tasting.  So-called “double-decanting” is best – decant the wine into a jug or decanter, rinse the bottle clean of any sediment, then pour the wine back into the bottle and push the cork half in for transportation.  It’s usually convenient to open other reds before the tasting starts, to reduce the number of wines to be opened during the tasting.

Start the tasting with a brief introduction to the theme, giving some factual information and an overview of the choice of wines.  Then serve each wine in turn, giving some brief factual information about the wine and explaining how it relates to the theme.

After everyone has tasted a wine, encourage people to give their views and have a bit of discussion on what they think of the wine.  (Usually people are a bit coy at the start of the evening and become more vocal as the number of wines tasted increases!)  When everyone has had their say, you can give some of the main points from the tasting note on your “final” sheet to see how people’s comments compare to the note you assembled.

Then encourage people to guess the price.

At the end of the tasting we go round the table and ask people to nominate their favourite white and favourite red of the evening.

Conclusion

The club is all about enjoying wine and having fun and leading a tasting should be fun too.  Some investment of time and effort is needed but most people find that very worthwhile and an opportunity to increase their own knowledge.

We hope these notes will make the process a bit easier and less daunting and remember that we’re always ready to help and advise, if you’re not quite sure how to tackle a particular aspect of your preparations.

 

Chris Headdon

August 2018