PLANNING A SUCCESSFUL WINE tasting, or trying to match wines with a gourmet meal, can be overwhelming. All too often, sommeliers suggest wines that you've never heard of. Their recommendations could be great advice, but they could also be based on their own personal preferences — or on which selections are most profitable for the house. In any scenario, the best way to make an informed choice for your group is to know the basics, and speak with authority.

Choosing the right wine

Step No. 1: Check the color and clarity of the wine. Deep red implies a wine that is full-bodied (like whole milk), dry (no sweetness), and tannic (leaves a dry sensation in the mouth). On the other hand, the texture of a light-colored red will be more like skimmed milk, and it is more likely to have a touch of sugar that will keep your mouth from feeling dry.

Wine should always be clear, with no cloudiness and no visible particles. If you choose an old red wine (typically more than eight years) or a port, it may need to be decanted to separate the clear wine from the tannins that have precipitated onto the side of the bottle. Reds should be served at 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, cooler than the temperature of most wine storage rooms.

White wines don't have tannins, but darker whites typically have more body than lighter whites. The amount of sugar usually depends on the type of grape that dominates and the way the wine is made (vinified). White wines range in sweetness from a sweet Gewürztraminer (type of grape) to a bone dry Sancerre made from the sauvignon grape.

Step No. 2: Check the aroma of the wine. Technically, aroma is the smell of a young wine and bouquet is the smell of a wine that has been aged, but often — and in this article — these terms are used interchangeably. Swirl the wine in your glass to help release its fragrance; the glass should be filled no more than halfway. With practice, one can swirl a wineglass in the air but for beginners, moving the glass around in a small circle while it sits on a tabletop works just as well.

To maximize the bouquet, put your nose into the bowl of the glass and breathe deeply. Exhale and repeat twice. Certain aromas are associated with different types of grapes: Expect the scent of strawberry or raspberry in a young Beaujolais; the smell of apple, pear, and flowers from a chardonnay; and a heavier mixture of dark cherries, black peppercorns, and oak from old cabernets.

Step No. 3: Taste the wine. Take a small sip of wine and roll it around the tongue to best appreciate flavor nuances. Think in terms of “chewing” rather than drinking. You're looking for a balance of flavor components. The sweetness of the wine will be detected on the tip of the tongue. The taste buds along the back sides of the tongue respond to the acids in the wine — most pronounced in white wines produced in cold climates, but all wines need at least a touch of acid to be balanced. The back of the tongue picks up any bitterness (typically in red wines with excess tannin). High-alcohol wines will leave a “hot” sensation in the middle of the tongue. The taste of some wines will quickly fade whereas others will afford a long “finish.”

The body of a wine is most easy to detect just behind the tip of the tongue, and it's an important component of pairing wine with food. The light, skimmed-milk body of a pinot grigio is perfect for sipping during an al fresco cocktail party or to accompany light foods. A whole-milk — body wine like a vintage Bordeaux goes best with heavier foods and sauces that can stand up to the tannin and oak.

The Glass and the Grape

The taste of the wine depends in part on the design of the glass. Large-bowl stemware is best for full-aroma reds that release enough “nose” — another term for the smell of the wine — to fill the bowl. White wines taste best in smaller-bowl stemware because the nose is typically less complex and bold. The shape of the glass can also impact how a wine rolls onto the tongue, which, in turn, impacts the taste sensation. Oenophiles (wine connoisseurs) would never drink champagne from a champagne saucer, for example, because its shape allows the bubbles to escape too quickly and the delicate nose to be lost.

The grape variety, where it was grown, how it was grown (viticulture), and how its juice was turned into wine is also central to a wine's taste. For example, chardonnay produced in California often has more body and a more buttery flavor than a Chilean chardonnay.

Some wine-producing areas strictly limit the amount of grapes that can be harvested per acre, so vintners will trim back their vines to produce a grape with great richness. The pressing of the grapes is also important. Zinfandel can be pressed and the free-run juice drawn off to produce the pink colored, slightly sweet, white zinfandel blush wine. However, if that same juice is allowed to sit on its skins for several days, a deep-red, spicy, and full-bodied red zinfandel will be the result. The blush is appropriately paired with such items as light cheeses or cream soups, while the red can stand up to roasted meats or poultry.

Types of Tastings

There are several formats to a wine-only tasting. A general wine tasting starts with a light wine and then moves on to progressively heavier-bodied wines — semillon, chardonnay, Beaujolais, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and finally Barolo (the nebbiolo grape), for example.

A horizontal tasting samples just one type of wine from the same vintage, such as 2001 cabernet sauvignons from California, or a narrower tasting of 2001 cabernets from Napa county. Another option for a horizontal tasting is to sample the same wine and harvest year from different growing regions, such as California, Washington state, Chile, Australia, and South Africa.

A vertical tasting includes wines, typically from the same producer, over a number of vintages. One excellent vertical tasting is of Brunello di Montalcino from the Tuscany region of Italy. There are many superior vintages that could be included — particularly1996, 1990, and 1985 — all of which share some characteristics of fine, aggressive red wines but also exhibit differences as a result of their various production years. If you add a 2001 vintage as well, it will demonstrate how a bold red needs time to mature.

For a group of oenophiles, a “blind” wine tasting can be a lot of fun. The simplest blind tasting asks participants to identify the grape from which the wine was made. More challenging tastings ask them to identify the producer and year.

Wine tastings don't have to be sit-down affairs. You can make a reception memorable by offering a “flight” of wines instead of cocktails and giving attendees rating scorecards to rate each wine.

Pairing Food and Wine

The most effective tasting is one in which food is paired with wines. But this is also the most difficult type of tasting to effectively orchestrate. It's not as simple as pairing red wine with meat and white wine with fish. The cooking technique and the seasonings used in cooking impact the interaction of food with wine. For example, a brut (devoid of sugar) champagne goes very well with zabaglione, but if the chef garnishes it with a sprinkle of cardamom the champagne takes on a metallic taste.

Some food and wine tastings offer a different wine with each course (except salad, because the vinegar in most dressings reacts poorly with wine). Others serve a few samples of the same type of wine with each course — a syrah from California and a syrah from the Barossa Valley of Australia with a roasted tenderloin of beef, for example. When offering multiple wines for a single course, pour no more than one to two ounces of wine per person — roughly 15 tasters per bottle. You might find that the wine steward has a few bottles of same-type wines in his stock that you can purchase at a discount price to use for this type of tasting.

For any tasting, make sure that participants have printed information about the wines, and a space in which they can write comments. The wine steward or sommelier should be able to help you identify and put together the best tasting for your group. In addition, make sure there is an expert to lead the tasting. When food and wine are paired together, it's effective to have a speaker who comments briefly on each wine before and after the course is served. If you want to bring in an outside speaker, check out the Society of Wine Educators at

Vineyard Venues

Vineyards tastings — not the swilling contests that tourists participate in while traveling through wine country — can really help participants understand the subtleties that make one wine, producer, region, or country different from others. They are led by professionals who are personally involved in producing the wines, and the tasting rooms are custom-designed for serious wine tastings. For example, at Castello Banfi — a castle at the Villa Banfi vineyard in Montalcino, Italy — a stone-walled tasting room that dates back to the Middle Ages was designed with lighting that allows participants to see the true hue of the wines. Tables are set with white tablecloths to offer the perfect backdrop for eyeing the clarity and color of each sample.

Winemakers will also put together tasting lists and background sheets on each wine. Bread and water are offered to cleanse the pallet, and each taster is provided a spit bucket that makes it possible to taste without swallowing the wine.

Joseph F. Durocher, PhD, takes students on a global wine-tasting experience in his beverage management class at the University of New Hampshire, where he is an associate professor of hospitality management in the Whittemore School. He is also a contributing editor to Restaurant Business magazine.

Tasting Tips

  • The glass should be no more than half full, to allow space for swirling. It saves money, too.
  • Whiskey sour glasses are the perfect size to use when serving multiple wines with each course of a meal, and they minimize the chances of overconsumption.
  • Leave the empty bottles on the table so that tasters can read the labels.
  • You don't have to spend $60 per bottle for a fine wine — plenty of $25-or-under wines are a good value.
  • Custom-print corkscrews with the company or meeting name for a memorable takeaway from a tasting. Or, for a no-cost gift, put all of the corks in a fishbowl.

Beer-Tasting Tips

A malt beverage tasting — beer and ale — can be a fun, more casual alternative to a wine tasting. Most beers are made from the same ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. It is the proportions and quality of each ingredient, along with the handling of the barley, that account for most of the differences between them. A general tasting typically includes six malt beverages, beginning with a reference beer like Budweiser. Tasters then compare the intensity of malt flavors and hops flavors of an ale, pilsner, stout, porter, and hefeweizen to the reference beer.