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Wine Tasting Party Tips

By Alyssa Rapp, Founder and CEO of Bottlenotes.com, the premier online wine community where wine enthusiasts come to learn about wine, share tasting notes, and buy wine. Alyssa is also the author of Bottlenotes Guide to Wine: Around the World in 80 Sips. Originally published on Forbes.com

Current economic times, like other crises, make for good inspiration for a night on the town. Then again, since it's an economic crisis, maybe just a glass of wine. Or two. Well, that could be $30 or more. Plus tip.

Maybe a wine-tasting party at home is a better idea. If the desired atmosphere is for guests to learn a thing or two about different wine varieties and styles, develop their palates and discover their personal likes and dislikes, a little more thought needs to go into the planning.

In Depth 10 Wines for a Tasting Party

Fortunately, the first rule is the easiest: Begin with bubbly (and it doesn’t have to be Champagne).

Sparkling wine is perfect for kicking off a wine-tasting party because it allows the guests to start sipping--and loosen up--before the formal “tasting.” To keep costs down, look for a Prosecco from Italy (one with a hint of sweetness, like that from La Tordera winery) or a Cava from Spain. Both Prosecco and Cava tend to be light, delightful and delicious, as well as easy on the wallet, at only $12 to $25 per bottle--seriously less expensive than Champagne.

If you really want to serve Champagne, though, look for one from producer Ayala. This house makes a "zero dosage” (no sugar added) Champagne that costs $45, about 30% less than Champagne counterparts of the same quality level.

After the bubbly, then, is where the planning comes into play.

Choose a Theme

It’s easiest to organize a wine-tasting party if there’s a theme. Lacking one can result in the rough, enological equivalent of having an appetizer from Applebee's, a main course from Le Cirque and a dessert from French Laundry. Ok, the latter wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But a sensible theme also gives your local wine shop a guiding principle for the wine recommendations.

Just be creative with the theme, since there are no rules about focusing on a particular grape variety, vintage or wine-making region.

For example, a “New World stars” tasting could feature a zippy Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, like that of Crossroads Winery, followed by a New Zealand Pinot Noir, then a New Zealand or Australian Bordeaux blend such as Boundary by the Te Awa winery in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Then close with an Australian Shiraz or Pinotage/Shiraz from South Africa, such as that made by Seven Sisters winery. The wine is smoky and earthy, which characterizes the South African Pinotage style.

Most importantly, though, the tasting has moved through several New World wine-producing regions, from light and zippy to dense and complex, showing how the wine varieties and styles differ through each country.

Pick the Pairings

If you're serving several different types of wine, make sure there's plenty of food to go with them all lest the party go downhill a bit too quickly rather than build to a crescendo. When you buy the wines, ask the experts at the shop for food-pairing recommendations based on each, then head to a cheese shop or gourmet food store.

Just remember, pairings don't have to be complicated. By and large, no one will leave a wine tasting hungry--or completely disoriented--if you have a few baguettes (preferably warmed at 350 degrees for five to 10 minutes before the tasting), ample and varied cheeses, hard salami, olives and nuts (marcona almonds work well) for guests to munch on. The basic pairing principle is that a pairing can either contrast or complement the wine- e.g. you could serve a floral and aromatic white wine such as Viognier with pungent blue cheese for a contrasting pairing recommendation; you could serve a super lush, unctuous California Cabernet with a triple-crème brie for one that is more “complementary.” Again, experts at the cheese or gourmet food shop can serve as great guides.

Last but not least, take the time to type up a wine list for the event, writing the wine name, a tasting note, and the story behind each winery, and print a copy for each guest. A wine list gives each guest something to read and think about while tasting the wines. If you add a line asking guests to rate the wines as they taste them, it offers a way to keep people engaged throughout the evening--but also thinking more about their own preferences as they taste through the wines.

If writing notes and keeping track of ratings is too formal for your liking, a wine-tasting party is, at the very least, a casual yet elegant way to catch up with friends. How "serious" or educational you make the party is up to you and anyone you invite. The more the group gathers and tastes, though, the more interesting and fun the tastings will get, whether they span regions, vintages or both. And more.

In Depth 10 Wines for a Tasting Party