If you have been lured into the world of fine wine tasting, then you might be fortunate enough to get invited to an industry tasting. Such events are held largely in plush hotels and conference centres across the UK, by wine importing companies who can’t wait to taste test their new wine lists and with any luck, encourage their clientele of wine merchants and private consumers to purchase great volumes of wine. Etiquette is everything at such an event – and so here is an insider’s guide to surviving (and enjoying) a wine tasting.
First of all – try not to be the designated driver. There are spittoons all over the place, and you need not swallow a drop – but you might. Lunch is sometimes provided, but not always. Find out first, if you can. But if you are the driver, just be careful because you might swallow more than you realise. If you are not driving and lunch is provided, don’t be afraid to ask one of the exhibitors if you can take a bottle to lunch – they will usually give you an open bottle of something that you have expressed an interest in to take with you to lunch, in the hope that you will enjoy it so much you will place a massive order with them on your return.
Back when I was a wine merchant, a new member of staff once asked me how one should dress for a wine tasting – I can’t remember what advice I gave on that particular day, but there are a variety of options. You can tell a great deal about people by looking at their attire – many of the most prolific wine merchants will turn up looking like they have just rolled out of bed, but there is an amusing air of class about them that is detectable even in jeans and a scruffy top. I always tried to look smart – and learned very quickly that wearing high heels was a waste of time. There is NEVER anywhere to sit.
Taste the champagnes first if you can – then start with the cheaper white wines, graduating towards the more expensive ones, then start on the lighter reds, heavier reds and finally the fortified wines. At a lot of tastings the wines will be laid out in the order that the exhibitors think you should taste them, which is fine as long as everyone arrives in a steady stream lasting the entire day. If you find that time constrains you to mix up the order, take advantage of the jugs of water that are available to cleanse your palate between sips.
Absolute no-no’s include wearing perfume or aftershave – if you are serious about wine tasting you will want a nice neutral smell around you, and this includes the absence of hand cream, lipstick and scented facial products. Ladies, if this sounds like an exaggeration, try tasting the same wine with and without lipstick on. I guarantee you will notice the difference. If someone else at the tasting has a strong scent on that distracts you, try sniffing the skin on your arm to bring you back to a familiar smell, and then taste the wine again. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it works.
At the door you will be given a list with the names and vintages of all the wines on display, and a pen. Even if it seems futile, write down some thoughts, particularly about the wines that you like. Or at the very least, score the wines using either Robert Parker’s 50-100 scale, or your own scale, so you can identify your favourites. Even if you think you will remember them later, you probably won’t, and by the time you go back to try them again your palate will be so jaded you will barely be able to taste them.
Spend some time talking to the good folks who are pouring the wine – they are often extremely knowledgeable and (let me tell you a secret) they will occasionally have something extra special behind the table that is not on display that they will invite you to partake in because you have given them the time of day (this is how I got to try some very fine Canadian Icewine at a tasting I initially thought was not that interesting!)
And finally, don’t be afraid to give feedback – whether it is positive or negative, as long as it is politely and sensitively delivered, it will be taken on board by the exhibitors, assuming of course that you have portrayed yourself as the informed, seasoned professional of wine tasting that you will undoubtedly soon become….