Wines of the Month

January, 2001

Tasting Tactics

It seems like the confetti has just been cleaned out from Times Square, and most of us are just getting started on keeping (or breaking) our New Year's resolutions, but, amazingly, the wine-tasting season is already in full swing. This month, two huge events, the Boston Wine Expo and the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers tasting in San Francisco, will take place, providing wine fans with some mid-winter cheer. And those are just the beginning of a long (but fun) year of wine tasting.

With so many large events already scheduled, and seemingly more popping up every year, it seems like a good time to offer some tips for getting the most out of these tastings. When people hear or read about my coverage of the Boston Wine Expo every year (for details on the Expo, check out our information page), they often ask me how I'm able to taste so many good wines in such a short time, and how I can remember them well enough to write my reports. And when they see the 200+ tasting notes I write every year, they usually also ask how I manage to survive the show. Unfortunately, I don't have any big secret strategies, but I can offer some tips that should not only allow you to survive a big tasting, but should also help make it an enjoyable experience.

My first tip is to plan ahead. Making the most of a mega-tasting starts long before the first sip of wine is poured into your glass. What kind of planning should you do? The first thing you need to know is how to get to and from the tasting. While this may seem obvious for any type of event, I think that transportation planning is especially important for any event focused on alcohol. You don't want to ruin your night (or, worse, anyone else's) by drinking and driving, so plan to use cabs, public transit or have a designated driver to pick you up. You could also make a reservation for dinner near the tasting, allowing you time to make sure that you are sober. Believe me, you'll enjoy yourself more if you aren't worried about how you're going to get home, or if you'll be able to drive.

After you know how to get to the tasting, you'll want to plan your provisions. If this is starting to sound like a major expedition, well, it's really not. However, you can bring a few things that will make your day much more enjoyable. For example, I always bring a bottle of water to tastings. You never know if there will be enough, and if you're planning to taste a lot of wine, you will need to keep yourself hydrated. If I'm unsure about food options, I always make sure to bring some bread or crackers -- preferably with neutral flavors. My favorite snack is a nice baguette of traditionally made French bread. The bread helps refresh my palate and keeps the alcohol from being absorbed too quickly. If good wineglasses will not be provided at the tasting, you may want to bring your own. Most importantly, though, you should bring something to record your impressions -- a pocket notebook (don't forget a pen) works well, though the more tech-happy folks may prefer Palm Pilots. By the end of a tasting, even if it is a fairly small one, you may forget which wines you found most impressive. Heck, sometimes I even forget during a tasting; when people ask me which wines I liked, I often have to flip through my notebook. Meanwhile, they're left to wonder why they bothered asking someone who doesn't seem to know what he has been doing for the last couple of hours.

One final, often neglected but very important, area to plan is your wardrobe. Wear dark clothes, and nothing too expensive. Red wine stains easily, and wine spills aren't exactly uncommon at these events. White clothes seem to act like wine magnets, as do dry-clean only items. Dark purple is one of my favorite colors for tastings...

Now that the planning is done, you will want to develop a tasting strategy. If a map is available, take a few minutes to look at it, and highlight the tables you want to visit. If not, just make a general survey of the room. Make sure you visit your favorite producers early in the tasting, because it's easy to run out of time at the end of the day. Also some producers will inevitably run out of wine -- often just their better bottles, but sometimes all the wine will disappear. Remember, you probably aren't the only one who has highlighted these producers! Some people try to work from white wines to red wines to dessert wines. While I like this strategy in theory, I find that at most events, it just isn't practical. Once you get to a table, you should probably taste all of the wines that interest you. You never know when, or if, you'll make it back. Even with a good strategy, you may still miss some good producers; every year at the Boston Wine Expo I seem to find a good one just as the show is closing. However, the strategy should at least allow you to try more of the wines you really want to taste.

My next tip is to avoid the crowds. Being constantly bumped and jostled isn't exactly conducive to careful (or enjoyable) tasting. Sometimes, like at the last few years of the Boston Wine Expo, there are just too many people. You can't avoid them all. However, you can try a couple of strategies to reduce the headaches. At the beginning of a show, people tend to head for the first bottle they see, so they tend to bunch up near the entrance. My advice is to start as far away from the entrance as you can, and work your way back. If the event offers seminars during the main tasting, try to schedule some during the peak times (usually right around the middle of the event). That way, you'll miss the worst of the crush, and you'll be at the general tasting during the least populated times.

An invaluable tip is to pace yourself. Tastings aren't a race. If you hurry through all the wines, you won't remember any of them by the end of the day. Give yourself time to evaluate the wines, and remember to take time to enjoy them. After all, if tasting isn't fun, why bother? And one key to pacing yourself is to...

Spit. Did you get that? I can't say it enough. Spit, spit, SPIT! In a large tasting, the spit bucket is your best friend. Many people, when first confronted with the idea of spitting, immediately say something like, "Eewww, disgusting. I can't believe you do that." Others just seem to think it would be rude to spit out a wine in front of the producer. However, if you don't use the bucket, you may soon find yourself sitting in a corner babbling or otherwise embarrassing yourself, like many other unfortunates I've seen over the years at the Boston Wine Expo. Remember, you're not doing anyone any favors by not spitting. Even the producers know that you can better evaluate their wines if you don't get drunk.

Finally, my last piece of advice is to talk to the people pouring the wines. Ask them questions about their grapes, vineyards, vinification methods, stylistic preferences or anything else you can think of. Tell them what you like or dislike about the wines. While there are exceptions, I've found that most of the people pouring the wines really want to talk to their customers. You'll probably learn something new about wine (I always do), which may actually help you to appreciate new styles or increase your enjoyment of old favorites. Besides, there's an even more selfish motive for having a conversation. Once in a while people hide a special bottle or two "under the table" for people who seem especially interested in their wines, and they might just give you a taste...

Now that you know how to negotiate a mega-tasting, the last step is to figure out what to drink with dinner afterwards. I recommend wines that are enjoyable, but easy on the palate and brain. If you've tasted a lot of red wines, your mouth may actually be sore from the tannins, so I don't recommend big burly reds. And if you didn't get enough water, you may be dehydrated, so I don't suggest high alcohol wines, either. Sparkling wines are often refreshing, helping to perk up your palate. And wines with a little residual sugar can often seem soothing after a long day of tasting. This month's recommended wines should fit the bill nicely.

Langlois Chateau Clos Saint Michel Cremant de Loire Brut NV -- Made primarily from Chenin Blanc, with Cabernet Franc, Groslot, and a small amount of Chardonnay. Pale yellow color, with somewhat fewer bubbles than most Champagnes, but still enough fizz to wake up your mouth. Nice yeast and fresh pear aromas lead into flavors of pear, apple, and a touch of cherry. Could use more intensity, but flavors are nicely balanced. Finishes nicely with pears, apples and some grapefruit flavors. Residual sugar level seems to be about the middle of the Brut range. Not complex, but a lively drink at the price.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling Spätlese Josephshoffer Mosel-Saar-Ruwer '95 -- Aromas of petrol, cola, golden delicious apples and apricots. Good flavors of cola, petrol, mineral, apple and peach. Fairly sweet for a Spätlese, but the flavors are a touch less concentrated than I would expect from this producer. Less acidic than expected, but a long mineral, citrus and peach finish leaves a powerful final impression.

Rivetti, Giuseppe & Figli La Spinetta - Bricco Quaglia Moscato d'Asti '98 -- Light, sweet and very slightly fizzy. Very light color. Aromas of orange blossom, peach and a hint of rosemary. More restrained than many wines of this type, but still quite expressive. Orange peel, flowers, peach, apricot and very ripe apple make themselves known in the mouth, again along with a surprising hint of rosemary. Long finish dominated by apricot, coconut and orange peel. Lots of fun.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2001 by Marcel Lachenmann.