So you’ve managed to find a date when all your closest friends are free to join forces for an epic night of wine-ing and dining. And you’ve offered to be the host. The excited moments of turning your home into the evening’s venue for cheers and toasts are slipping away as you start to feel the pressure to impress set in. Forget decorating the table and ordaining it with the correct cutlery, you have a five course to eight course meal to plan. And, whatsmore, to find the perfect wine to go with each course!
So, what’s a degustation?
Degustation is a culinary term; a careful, appreciate tasting of various foods focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company. Rather than a large portioned meal, a degustation is a sampling of smaller portions of signature dishes, each accompanied by a matching wine.
You’ve got your company and found a corkscrew. There are a few more things to keep in mind when setting up for your wine degustation to create the ultimate tasting experience.
To allow your friends to examine the colour of the wine, use a white table cloth. Gasp! Your friends are too messy to even consider white as an option? Place a sheet of white butcher paper under their glass (on top of your dark coloured table cloth resilient to spilt wine).
Without getting into the nitty gritty, wine is in fact affected by the size and shape of the glass. So, to keep your two most unruly friends from battling over a subtle difference they smell in a wine, do yourself a favour and purchase a set of all-purpose tasting glasses.
It’s best to pour your white wines between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit and reds between 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit. For whites, the temperature of your fridge may be too cold, so give them time to warm up on the counter. As for your reds, to ensure they’re not feeling the heat, store them in a dark, cool place on their side – like on the ground in your closet.
Palate cleansers don’t have to send you over the moon with anxiety. Think simple, neutral crackers or biscuits – you can even toast French bread, too. And water is also key.
A taste may not sound like that much, but in fact it is! If you’re serving up 8 different wine tastings and you’ve greeted your guests with an aperitif, do yourself a favour so you don’t have any drunks on the couch at the end of the night and place a spit bucket (AKA spittoon) at each end of the table. These can be discrete and easily removed from the table following the tasting.
Pen & Paper
Your friends may be horrified to see they’ve jumped back to primary school when they see pen and paper at their seat, but they’ll be thankful by the end. Comparing notes at the end of the tasting can provide for amusing consulting, and allow you to easily vote of the group’s favourite.
Now, if the idea of preparing a five to eight course meal is far too daunting (or too high brow for your friends) we’ve broken it down for you!
One of the most entertaining ways to learn about wine is to host a tasting with your friends at home. It’s amusing, and educational!
There are two types of tastings you can organize: Varietal and Horizontal
A varietal tasting includes wines of the same grape variety from different parts of the world. For example, take Sauvignon Blanc. You can get a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (New Zealand), Sancerre (France) and California (USA). Or, for a red, Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux (France), California (USA) and Coonawarra (Australia). It’s best to select wines of the same (or nearly same) vintage – that’s the year the wine was harvested. Varietal tasting is a great starting point, and will allow you to see and taste the differences of wines made in various regions around the world.
A horizontal tasting will require a bit more leg work, and attention to detail. This requires wines of a single variety and single vintage. For example, Pinot Noir (your grape variety) from 2012 (your vintage) from France. This could include a Pinot Noir from Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise, all from 2012.
To keep the party lively, be sure to keep the wines a secret! No jock socks big enough to disclose the origin of your wines? Grab some aluminum foil and roll each bottle. Be sure to number the bottles and keep a list tucked away so you remember the order to pour in, and what the wines are. In your discussion, you can simply refer to the wines as ‘wine 1,’ ‘wine 2,’ etc.
Whether you’ve decided to go vertical or horizontal, stick to 6 to 8 wines for your tasting. You’d be surprised the lengthy conversations your most wine-adverse friends will want to carry on.
So when do we actually taste the wine?!
Put to rest your hoity-toity image of wine-o’s swirling their glass and nearly submerging their nose in the wine itself. Here’s a simple framework you can follow for each wine:
Here’s where that white table cloth or butcher paper comes in handy – hold the glass against the white backdrop to examine its colour, intensity and clarity. For red wines, this can be especially helpful in seeing if it’s a youthful wine (brighter with purple hues) or has some age to it (ruby with garnet hues).
And here’s where consistency of your glassware comes in handy – swirl the wine around in the glass to allow air to come in contact with the wine. This will let the wine breath and unwind a bit.
When smelling a wine for the first time, ask yourself these 3 questions:
- What is the aromatic intensity of the wine?
- Is this an aromatically complex wine?
- Are there any troubling or problematic aromas?
Aromatic intensity can be determined by asking yourself: how easy is it to smell the wine? Can you smell its aromas while holding the glass at arm’s length, or are you having to stick your nose well into the glass to smell the wine’s characteristics? A wine is high in aromatic intensity if it easily identified and has distinguished aromas. A wine is low in aromatic intensity if you have a hard time identifying any characteristics when smelling the wine, or if you cannot distinguish a certain flavor or point of reference with what your smelling, or not smelling for that matter.
Wines will also vary in their complexity, depending on age, winemaking style and grape variety. There are three aroma types that you can associate with the complexity of a wine:
- Primary Aromas: Aromas from the grape variety itself, along with the environment in which it grows. Includes aromas such as fruit flavours, herbal flavours, earthiness, floral notes and spice
- Secondary Aromas: Aromas from the winemaking and fermentation process, including a bready or yeasty like aroma. Typically found in young wines that have yet to experience ageing.
- Tertiary Aromas: Aromas that have evolved with the ageing of a wine, sometimes referred to as the bouquet. Tertiary aromas often come from oak aging, and attribute to dried fruit aromas or nutty characteristics.
It can happen even to the best of wines – a wine can simply be ‘off.’ Can’t quite put your hand on what you’re unpleasantly smelling? There are 3 typical culprits: reduced, and oxidized wines, and wines with cork taint.
Reduced wines can have a burnt rubber or cabbage aroma that can often times be nearly unbearable. Keep in mind, there is a difference between a reduced wine and reductive aromas. Reduced wines
Oxidised wines are wines that have been exposed to too much oxygen. It is the most common wine fault and results in a loss of brightness in colour and flavor. The wine is flat.
Cork taint smells like damp cardboard or nail polish remover. It can be caused by the cork itself, or, in the unfortunate case, be present in the winery and negatively impact entire batches of wine.
No slurping needed, though not discouraged. Take a sip of your wine and make sure to swish it all around inside your mouth. You want to engage all senses – from your tongue to your gums. You can ask yourself it is a heavy wine, if it is thin, if it’s rich or velvety.
This is what your friends are here for, other than your dashing looks and free offering of alcohol. Allow yourself to enjoy the flavours and textures of the wine – it’s saltiness, bitterness, sweetness or acidity. Lastly, remind yourself to enjoy the finish, and to see how long it lasts. Is it dropping off like a bad first date, or holding on like your Great Aunt at afternoon tea?
But what about the pen and paper? Hopefully your guests have made more than just doodles on their papers. This is when you can converse and summarise the wines, and hold a playful voting. Another great reason to keep the wines a secret – your guests won’t prejudge the wines based on country of origin, brand or grape variety.
Wine & Food Degustation
You’re ready to join the pros and master this whole wine and food pairing thing. Keeping all the basics above in check, be sure to also set two glasses for both white and red wines that you’ll be matching throughout the degustation.
For starters, you’ll be better off if you first think of the courses you’d like to (and have the ability to) prepare, and then pair your wine to match. You can choose to share your wine selection with your guests, or keep it a mystery – up to you!
A quick introduction of some important wine and food pairing elements:
If you’re serving up a fat-driven dish, be sure to pair a wine that can balance it with its acidity, cut through with its tanning or match the richness with alcohol.
We find acidity in our wines, and our food. When pairing an acidic dish with a wine, be sure to match it with a wine of equal or greater amount of acidity – this will ensure that the wine is not perceived as bland.
Salt heavy foods can pose a threat to finding a well-suited wine. If you’re setting out an assortment of cheese, particularly blue cheese, a sweet white wine will hold its balance. Another safe bet is sparking wine with salty, fried foods – the carbonation and yeasty acids can serve as a cleansing element to the salt.
Depending on the level of sweetness, you’ll want to be weary of what wine you’re setting with your favoured dessert. You should be certain that the wine tastes sweeter than the dessert. Light, fruity sweetness can be matched well with rich white wines, like Chardonnay and bitter, dark chocolate are a sure match with a late harvest Zinfandel (that’s a sweet red – not dry!)
A safe rule to follow is light with light and heavy with heavy.
Alright, on to the food! When in Paris, do as the Parisans do, right? To highlight a French structured degustation, here’s the Frenchman’s components. However, take it or leave it – play with the number of courses you’d like to serve, along with the theme of the cuisine.
This course will take you longer to say than it will to eat it. Usually a one-bite, one-size-fits all item.
Suggested food: Black radish, smoked salmon and fromage frais
Suggested wine: Bubbles! Stick to dry or brut Champagne or refreshing Prosecco
This isn’t your bowl of chicken noodle soup your mom makes for you when you’re sick in bed with a cold. Think of a slight enhancement of the amuse bouche in terms of flavor profile and heaviness. This can be served cold or hot, but a warm soup is a nice transition for the courses yet to come.
Suggested food: Creamy fennel soup with coconut and apple
Suggested wine: A Spanish white Albarino with suit here
This is slightly more robust than your amuse bouche, but don’t give too much away. You can include carbs and meat, but shouldn’t require your guests to ponder over which fork to use – usually finger food!
Suggested food: Rabbit rillettes on toasted baguette
Suggested wine: Think pink. Try a dry, crisp rose from Provence (France)
In Western cultures, this can be considered as the main course, but in France it is the entry to the main course. This is a small course featuring white meats, starches, vegetables and a sauce.
Suggested food: Tarragon chicken with asparagus
Suggested wine: Alsace Gewurztraminer
No need to shout at your guests to eat their veggies as they push them away on their plate – this is an entire course designed for veggies, and naturally, a great palate cleanser.
Suggested food: Goats cheese salad with beetroot
Suggested wine: Malrborough (South Island), New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
Time for your protein. This is where you can turn up the heat and prepare a filling red meat dish.
Suggested food: Crunchy almond-crusted duck breasts
Suggested wine: A California or Oregon Pinot Noir will be a well married complement
Bring on the sweets. Famous for their croissants and macaroons, the French know how to cater to those of us with an unquenchable sweet tooth.
Suggested food: Tarte Tatin – think caramelized upside down apple pie
Suggested wine: To balance the thicker texture of the caramel with the apple, try a Liquer Muscat from Victoria, Australia
A variety of soft, hard, pungent and smoked cheeses will be well enjoyed by a lively dinner part, especially at this stage in the night. Serve with candied nuts, dried fruit and quince paste.
Suggested cheese: Assortment of cheeses, crackers, candied nuts and dried fruit
Suggested wine: No better offering than a sweet Sauternes from Graves in Bordeaux
This menu structure and offerings are a framework for you to build off of – take it down a notch or beef it up (literally) with more meat driven courses. When in doubt, you can stick to these key pointers:
- Bubbles for beginners – Champange or Prosecco is always a safe bet to welcome your guests with, and a great pairing with a light amuse bouche or salad
- White wines – Paired best with lighter faire, including white meats and vegetables
- Rose wines – Well suited for light pasta and rice dishes, along with seafood
- Red wines – Structured to pair with a red meat driven course or rich pasta dishes
- Sweet white wines – Sure to compliment the sharp taste, salt and texture of an assorted cheese board served after dessert
Happy wine-ing and dining!