Wine tasting party

Throw a blind tasting of Syrahs from around the world, then serve an easy dinner made to match
Sara Schneider

Menu:

Mixed olives, cheeses, and crackers

Party conversation thrives when you compare a few different bottles of the same wine. It's a fun way to learn more, no matter how much you already know about wine. Add the challenge of a blind tasting, plus a dinner matched to the wines, and you have a Saturday night party that people will talk about afterward too. We've planned an easy menu, so you can concentrate on figuring out how the West's up-and-coming Syrahs rate against their counterparts in the rest of the world.

How to set up a tasting party

Choose a wine you'd like to know more about that is made in different parts of the world (or different regions in one part of the world), and decide on a price range. We picked Syrah ― which is showing up more and more on wine lists ― from three places: France's Rhône Valley (its original home), Australia (where it's called Shiraz), and right here in the West.

1. Assign each person coming to your party to bring one bottle of wine and as many glasses as there are wines coming, since few hosts have enough wineglasses for this kind of thing ― and wouldn't want to wash several dozen at midnight anyway.

2. Remove the entire foil capsule (which sometimes contains clues to the wine) from each bottle, uncork the wines, and drop them into brown paper lunch bags, closing the tops with string or rubber bands. Then mix them up, number the wines consecutively (you can attach tags if you want ― sold in many wine shops ― or just write on the bags), and line them up on a table.

3. Provide a spit cup for each person ― a prop you need to use if you're interested in learning anything about the last few wines; red or blue plastic cups work great. And make sure everyone has paper and a pencil. Have everyone arrange their glasses in a semi-circle in front of them, and pour a taste of each wine (2 ounces or so) into its corresponding glass, the left one being number 1.

4. Together, taste through the wines and jot down comments. Swirl and sniff each, for its aromas; taste and swish, for flavors and textures. For a little competition, have everyone write down the country they think each wine is from (we describe common profiles at right), to see who the best tasters in the group are. At our party, the most anyone got right was three out of six.

5. Finally, unmask the bottles (re-attach the number to each, so everyone can match their comments to the wines), stop spitting, pull out the appetizers, and compare notes while you grill the beef. Pour all the wines for dinner to see which ones you like best with the food.

 

The wines

French Syrah is earthy, often gamy and smoky, with leather, pepper, black olive, and dark fruit flavors (blueberries show up a lot). Australian Shiraz is generally lush and fruity, with big, brambly blackberry flavors. West Coast Syrah is somewhere in the middle, leaning to France when it's grown in a cooler place, to Australia in a warmer climate. Our picks are in the $15 to $20 range.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné "Les Jalets" 2002 (Crozes Hermitage, France; $18). Lean and leathery, with black pepper, blueberries, and currants mixing with minerals through a long finish.

Perrin & Fils "Les Cornuds" Vinsobres 2003 (Côtes du Rhône Villages, France; $16). French minerality under peppery berries. Some Grenache is blended with Syrah here.

D'Arenberg "The Footbolt" Shiraz 2003 (McLaren Vale, South Australia; $19). Blackberries and black pepper, with slightly chewy tannins and great acid.

Tintara Shiraz 2003 (McLaren Vale, South Australia; $20). Smoky, peppery, and slightly gamy, with rich berries.

Edna Valley "Paragon" Syrah 2003 (Central Coast, CA; $15). Dark, minty berries with black pepper and vanilla, a few herbs, and a little mocha

Rosenblum Fess Parker Vineyard Syrah 2002 (Santa Barbara County; $20). Very earthy for the New World, with black olives, leather, pepper, and sweet pipe tobacco balanced with juicy berries.