he wine-cup is the little silver well, Where truth, if truth there be, doth dwell. — William Shakespeare
Attend any gallery opening, any night at the symphony or tour wine country, and you’re bound to stumble upon someone offering a wine tasting. Sometimes they’re preludes to galas designed to keep guests busy before the big event, others are simpler and less pretentious.
Take a walk almost anywhere in the world that produces wine and you’ll also find an enoteca or winery offering passers-by informal free tastings by the glassful. Coaxing you in to sample the fruits of their labor can produce sales for makers — and shopkeepers.
Formal tastings make wine the centerpiece. Wine lovers use these moderately priced-to-expensive events to fine-tune tastes while meeting and chatting with fellow oenophiles. Their well-planned fanfare — crystal glasses and well-known (read expensive) wines — can intimidate the novice and can give off snobbery unintentionally.
Here are two tasting invitations I got recently:
Harlan Estates, 1991-2004 vintages. $895 per person
Readers who don’t know this California wine producer might wince at the price. But Bob Levy’s Napa Valley wines (the equivalent of a Bordeaux first-growth) are rare and sought-after. The vineyard’s Bordeaux-style blends from 1994, 1997 and 2002 have sold for more than $1,000. It’s a good tasting if you have a Midas pocketbook.
Old World and New World Wines. €35 per person
Here’s a more traditional tasting designed to show participants how European grapes compare to wines from the same variety grown in the new world. Here, you learn how terroir (pronounced tear-wahr; where the grapes are gown) affects flavor. French Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, or Cabernet Sauvignon might be compared to the same varietals produced in Sonoma, Oregon, Paso Robles and Napa Valley.
But you don’t need to travel. Wine tasting at home can help you learn what you like among unsnobby friends, with revelry as a bonus. An enjoyable way to do this is to hold a “horizontal” taste test. “Vertical” tastings, such as the one at Harlan Estates, compare the same wine produced at one vineyard over a period of successive years, 1996, 1997, and 1998, for example. Horizontal tests compare one year across a group of producers that make the same kind of wine, Chianti or a Pino Grigio for example.
In Italy, a fine wine for sleuthing preference (and honing your own) is Barolo. What people like and why will surprise you.
Called the “King of Wines,” Barolo DOCG requires that the wine be made of 100 percent Nebbiolo grapes, achieve a minimum alcohol content of 13 percent or higher, and be aged for a minimum of three years, two in chestnut or oak. Barolo Riserva follows the same grape and alcohol restrictions but is aged for five years. What the rules do not specify however is which of the two woods a vineyard can use, whether the barrels are old or new (or a combination of the two), or even which size, large botti or smaller barrique.
And size matters.
Agreeable reds with high tannin are affected by wood. Character can change. Smaller containers usually produce more heavily toasted, smokier wines. In the case of Barolos, bigger botti permit Nebbiolo’s fruitier highlights to shine through. French oak adds more aggressive tannins, which gives a hint of perfume followed by a sharper aftertaste. American oak often gives a hint of vanilla, spice or cream. New wood versus old can be central to flavor.
By picking Barolos made differently your tasters will learn whether they prefer continental styling (less contact with wood during aging resulting in more subtle fruit) or New World (more wood, huge fruit).
Here are a few sample wines and some simple starter instructions.
— 1993 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis;
— 1993 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Brunate;
— 1993 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva Monfortino;
— 1993 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis
Hints: You’ll need two to three bottles of wine for every six guests depending on the number of times you expect your guests to revisit a particular maker. When serving, rinse each tasting glass with a little of the next wine before moving on to the next. Never mix tastes.
Give guests pen and paper so they can record their thoughts on color, scent, and taste. Pay attention to looks. Color can reveal pedigree and age. Young reds are typically purple or ruby-colored with wines becoming brick or even brown when they’re older.
Stick your nose into that glass and take a deep whiff. What do you smell? Write down what it makes you think of. Keep it simple.
Swish. That is, enjoy a mouthful, holding it briefly before swallowing. Can you taste what you just wrote down? Are there new flavors you didn’t notice? How long do the flavors last? Enjoy!