People often ask me, “how did you learn about wine?” My answer always starts, “well I drink it,” getting into the subject in a fun way. I then go on to talk about visiting wineries and tasting, reading about wine, looking at wine videos and even feature movies, and talking about wine with people who enjoy that kind of thing.
When I was in graduate school at San Jose State University, I had a friend who worked in the Tasting Room at the then nearby Mirassou Winery. Paul would call us and say – “I have some left-over wine from today’s tastings. Would you like me to bring it over?”
As any student or ex-student knows, the answer to this question is always a resounding yes, and we were no different.
I then lived near the campus at the corner of 7th and Williams Streets in a large Victorian divided into upstairs and downstairs apartments. Our upstairs friends knew Paul too, and we would assemble for the impromptu party.
The first time Paul arrived with close to a case of wine bottles, all already open, we were more than ready to dive in and starting drinking. But Paul would stop us as we came to the table. He proceeded to put the wines in a specific order. He would then continue by giving us precise tastes of the first open bottle, along with practicing his little speech for that wine.
He also explained the order was not arbitrary – this is the sequence that one tastes wine in to maximize the tasting experience. He said it would be very useful to him if he could practice his presentation on this friendly audience.
After this happened a few times we came to enjoy hearing about the wines. Paul also passed on new bits of knowledge he had learned from the winemakers and colleagues in the tasting room.
At about the same time, a few of us would go up to Napa on a day off and visit the wineries. During grad school I drove a 1970 BMW 2002. I would look for any excuse to take a nice drive and visiting the Napa wineries was one of the best. My 2002 was orange, or as BMW called it “Colorado.” The car had a nickname – the “Pumpkin.”
In the 1970s many of the tasting rooms were still free, including some very well-known historic wineries such as Beaulieu (BV), Beringer, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers, Inglenook, Louis Martini and Mondavi. Cabernet and Chardonnay were already popular, but Chenin Blanc was widely available too.
Once there, we were able to understand the tasting room experience in a more complete way, due to our sessions with Paul. And yes, all of the Napa Valley wineries tasted in the same order.
It soon was obvious that the individuals working in the tasting rooms could read the wine knowledge of the people they were serving. Even though we were young students, we would be taken more seriously as we could use the tips and language Paul had imparted to us to interact with the servers.
So, what is tasting order? The idea is you taste the wines in an order where the flavor of the current taste will not prevent you from being able to discern and appreciate the flavors and experience of the next wine – so from lightest to heaviest. A typical tasting order is sparkling, light whites, heavier whites, rose, light reds, more full-bodied reds, and finally dessert wines as shown in the picture above.
For example, you would start with Sauvignon Blanc (or Pinot Grigio), go to a lightly oaked austere Chardonnay, then a more full-bodied Chardonnay, then to a Rose, to a Pinot Noir, onto full-bodied reds like Merlot or Cabernet and finally to dessert wine. Not all wineries offer the full range, but they will still follow the basic sequence.
Not only will you appear more knowledgeable when you go wine tasting, you can also use these guidelines in any wine drinking. This is why one would start with a sparkling or white wine before dinner and with appetizers and then to a red with dinner assuming that makes sense with what you are eating.
I’ve recently read when visiting a winery it is bad etiquette to refuse any wine in the sequence. You should always graciously accept the wine, swirl and appreciate the “nose” and perhaps take a tiny sip before you discard in the bucket. You never know, you might actually like that wineries version of the wine you did not like before!
Many wine tastings are more limited than what is offered at a winery. Perhaps you are trying a specific wine, say sparkling only, or tasting various Cabernets side-by-side. Some of my friends like blind tastings, where the bottle identity is concealed and tasters guess the type and origin of the wine.
However you do tastings being aware of wine tasting order is always useful. You would try a lighter sparkling before the richer – i.e., blanc de blanc before rose. Or the lighter Cabernet before the more full-bodied. Regardless, you will have fun and learn along the way. Here’s to happy wine tasting!