How to set up a wine-tasting party with a sensory twist

Create unique experiences for your guests when you host a wine-tasting party by following the advice of a sensory scientist and best practices.

Published March 8 2023

I'm not a great social event organizer; I actually dread this type of activity. I'm the big picture person, not the Nitty Gritty detailed one.

However, choosing a wine-tasting theme party is what I do every month for my subscribers.

I'm happy to share how I plan this virtual tasting event that you can reproduce for an in-person event.

Choose a wine-tasting theme.

The theme selection is based on the experience I would like my guests to have by the end of the tasting event. As a sensory scientist, I know it's impossible to describe a wine in absolute terms or any tasting experience, for that matter.

Because we always compare what we smell or taste to what we have smelled or tasted before. So when I coach novice tasters, I always have them compare at least two wines.

Comparing a white wine to a red wine might not be that interesting, except if they have similarities of some sort.

>> For example, you could taste and compare a Pinot Noir made as a white wine and a Pinot Noir made as a red wine. I have had this experience before, and it helps you realize the importance of skin contact in delivering the flavors in red wine, which we don't have in the white wine.

The theme should also be related to the wine knowledge you wish to share with your guests.

  • It could be knowing more about a wine style produced in a particular wine region. You then focus your discussion on the particularities of this wine-producing region.
  • It could be the use of specific wine-making practices;
  • It could be the particular climate or the special soils that tend to impart distinct flavors in the wines.

For example, the Chardonnays produced in Chablis tend to have a typical Flint aroma that some people describe as minerality. If you compare the Chablis wine with other Chardonnays from Burgundy, the flint aroma will be a distinct trait that your guests can identify and memorize.

The tasting flow

The less your guests know about the wines they will taste, the more objective and focus they will be. Any a priori information can bias their minds. They will look for that gooseberry note in Sauvignon blanc or peppery note in Shiraz and miss other unexpected flavors.

There are two possible testing flows:

  1. First, you taste the wine one by one and share your tasting notes after each wine. As I mentioned before, it's difficult to describe in absolute terms. Therefore, I recommend the second possible flow.
  2. The second tasting flow is to taste two wines, one after the other, and advise your guests to describe each wine compared to the other.

It will be easier for them to say the first one was stronger in that particular note, or the second wine had something special that I have difficulty describing, etc.

It's easier to describe by comparison than by telling in absolute terms.

How many wines to consider

I usually recommend no more than six wines per hour of tasting. That's already a lot for novice tasters. After 3 or 4 wines, your senses become saturated.

That's why it's essential to rinse your palate between each wine, yes, each wine.

Use water - served at room temperature - and unsalted crackers or unsweetened bread - like a French baguette - to remove any residuals in your mouth.

So having 10 minutes per wine and a break between wines during which you discuss and rinse your palate gives you a good flow at a good pace to enjoy the overall tasting experience.

How to take wine-tasting notes

You don't need anything fancy to take wine-tasting notes. Use a simple notebook.

It is important to write down everything you perceive as you perceive them. Don't stop and second-guess yourself. Your senses know better.

Take these notes, especially if you want to remember the smell, taste, and mouthfeel you experience for a particular wine or wine style. That's how you develop your further knowledge about the wine style or region of the tasting theme.

However, I recommend a particular flow in the tasting sequence.

  1. First, smell without swearing the glass; it helps capture the most volatile aromas.
  2. Second, smell after swimming the glass.
  3. Third, taste the wine for its flavors detected in the mouth.

Note that I don't pay particular attention to color or appearance. Traditional wine-tasting classes teach you to see, smell, sip, savor, and swallow.

>> Seeing and paying attention to the wine appearance is an incredible bias on the smell and taste perceptions you will have after that. That's why I strongly recommend that you start by smelling, then tasting, and eventually, you can look at the wine appearance.

>> Looking at the wine appearance last isn't an issue because appearance should be pretty stable, contrary to the flavors that change quickly in your glass. That's why flavors are the most important characteristics to capture first and as they evolve when you perform a sensory tasting.

Using the wine aroma wheel will help your guests class their perception into different categories, from the most generic to the most specific. 

Tasting using the wine aroma wheel

And if you have wine aroma kits, have them handy in case your guests want to refresh their memories about specific aromas. Don't have those kits in the same room as the wine tasting because they can be very smelly, and their strong odors will disturb your wine assessment.

What food to serve?

I will serve food after the wine tasting unless you want to conduct a wine and food pairing experiment.

During the tasting part of your event, serve crackers, bread (no flavored bread, just plain bread), and water to rinse people's palates after tasting each wine.

After the tasting, serve a high-protein menu to help mitigate the impact of alcohol intake. 

When conducting in-person wine tastings, I would serve a lot of cheese and charcuterie after the tasting. We would have hummus or bean salads, high-protein food for vegetarians and vegans to help mitigate alcohol consumption.

If you have any other questions, please get in touch with me here.

Categories: Best practices, Tasting education

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Wine Taster

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Isabelle Lesschaeve

Principal, Blog author, and Wine Tasting Coach

Internationally renowned wine sensory scientist, Isabelle demystifies wine tasting and helps serious wine lovers sharpen their tasting skills and tasting notes in a supportive community.

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