Ten Green Bottles

You know I’m not normally one to blow my own trumpet. But as well as hosting rather excellent wine tours here in the Rhône valley, I like to think I organise pretty good wine tastings. So I thought I’d give you my tips for holding your own tasting at home.

Find a venue

The easy bit. Basically, as long the room can accommodate the number of guests you plan to invite and their chairs, it will do. But having everyone sitting around a table will make your life easier.

Plenty of room for the tasters and presenter

Invite some guests

You’re going to be opening quite a few bottles and if you want to avoid lots of wastage and/or things getting rowdy, you need to share around the alcohol. Six or seven tasters would be my minimum, ten or a dozen is even better. If there’s only two of you opening ten bottles that’s just a nice (albeit probably very drunken) chat.

Get some food

Plenty of bread is a good idea. It doesn't have to be organic like these loaves.

The food doesn’t need (or even want) to be elaborate, but plenty of good bread is helpful to soak up alcohol and some nice cheeses and charcuterie wouldn’t go amiss. You could try matching wines with their local cheeses, for example sancerre with Crottin de Chavignol goats’ cheese. In fact, pairing sauvignon blanc and goats’ cheese is generally a good idea. And I’m quite partial to Chaource cheese with champagne. Reds with a bit of acicity, such as those from the Loire valley or Italy’s valpolicella, are great with salami/saucisson sec. Blue cheeses and sweeter wines (think port and stilton, roquefort and sauternes) make a delicious ending to a tasting.

Some local cheeses would also be nice. Plastic sheep optional.

Other bits and pieces, some more important than others, include:

Tasting sheets – just a list of the wines with space for taking notes – are helpful, plus pens to go with them;

A map can be useful if you’re tasting wines from a particular region or country;

Water to drink and rinse glasses;

Something to use as a spitoon for those who don’t want to drink or for pouring away unwanted wine. (Elsewhere you may be expected to spit out wine; at home you can do whatever you want. I’m a realist and past experience suggests that most people drink their wine, but you never know. It’s best to be on the safe side.);


Glasses – there’s no need for everyone to have a new glass for each wine but a couple per person is handy, especially if you want to compare two wines side by side. Don’t go for huge buckets. You won’t be pouring large glasses, just enough to give everyone a tasting sample. You should easily get a dozen samples from a bottle and sixteen samples isn’t being stingy. If there’s wine left in the bottle it can always be drunk after the tasting. I use standard ISO tasting glasses as they’re cheap to replace if they break, the right size for the samples and the right tulip shape (tapering inwards towards the top);

This is an ISO glass. In the immediate background is the village of Rasteau, behind that are the hills of the Dentelles.

A “presenter” – with my Rhône valley tastings that’s obviously me. I know the wines, I know the winemakers, I can explain why the wines taste the way they do and put that into context. Along with the wines, it’s what people are paying me for. Now I’m not saying that one of your group should stand up and make a two hour presentation, but if you know a bit about the background to a wine it will help you understand it, maybe even enjoy it more. Perhaps each guest could bring a bottle appropriate to the chosen theme and read up a bit on that one wine. There’s loads of information on the internet. And if you can get a conversation going amongst the group, even better.

You don't have to stand up to present the wines, in fact you don't need a presenter. But a bit of knowledge will help you understand the wines.

It’s not always easy to pitch the tasting at the right level. In any group some people will be a bit more “wine nerdy” than others. If you don’t discuss the wine at all then I think you’re stretching the definition of a tasting, but discussing the finer points of full against partial malo will bore rigid non-winey people. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can guess which side of the fence you’ll fall. Be sensible and try to be inclusive.

Anything else?

Wine and driving don’t mix. Wherever you hold the tasting some people are bound to have to travel. That’s what public transport and taxis are there for.

Make sure the whites are chilled, but not overly so. Ice-cold wines don’t smell or taste of much; you’ll get more out of them if they are cool rather than semi-frozen.

The reds should be served nearer cool room temperature, and certainly not put in front of a radiator to stew. Hot wines reek of alcohol and not much else.

If possible, have a back up for each wine. You never know, you may have a dodgy bottle. And on that subject, a corked wine is not one with bits of cork floating in it (not pleasant, but harmless), it’s one that tends to smell like damp cardboard or moldy old carpets. The other relatively common issue, especially with certain red grapes like syrah and mourvedre (so local to me then) is “reduction”, most easily spotted by a more or less farmyardy/shitty/sulphury smell. Putting the wine into a decanter and letting it breathe will often cure the problem. And if that’s not enough, try dropping a copper coin into the decanter (or your glass for that matter). It can be amazing what a difference it makes.

Young reds may need a bit of air to help soften them and allow their aromas and flavours to develop. This is especially true if the wine has been made with a view to long term keeping. So it’s going to more of an issue with, say, Barolo or posh Bordeaux than a bottle of Jacob’s Creek shiraz. Open up the wines in advance of the tasting and you can make a judgement (and spot any faulty bottles at the same time). If you think the wine seems a bit gruff or uncommunicative leave the cork out or pour it into a decanter. If it seems just right, put the cork back in until it’s ready to be poured.

Which leads us on to…

Choose your wines

Lining up bottles for a tasting

It pays to have a theme to give the tasting some structure. You could just taste a random selection of bottles but you won’t learn as much that way. But taste a selection of, say, sangiovese-based wines from Tuscany and you can compare Brunello with Chianti with Vino Nobile. At worst, you’ll realise that you don’t really like the sangiovese grape, but you might instead start to learn what distinguishes these wines made with the same grape in the same region of Italy.

Most of the line-up , in their right order

In Part 2 I’ll be suggesting some themes for your tastings and giving some advice about their structure. But in the meantime, happy drinking.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where we talk about French wine and food. But as you might have gathered, we also organise wine tastings and indeed wine tours. If you’d like to know more about either, click on the link to go to the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com.

I’d like to thank James and Lorna at Rustic Trails for allowing these photos to be taken. They organise walking tours in and around the beautiful Drôme valley from their base in the lovely village of Saillans. If you would like more information, go to the website – www.rustictrails.co.uk.


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