Wine flights are a fantastic way to learn about wine. By bringing together similar wines and tasting them side by side, you’ll refine your palate so you can detect more subtleties with every sip. Here, we’ll tell you all you need to know to put together the perfect wine flight for comparative tasting. We’ll also talk about interesting wine tasting biases you can explore and ten wine flight ideas to try.
What Makes a Good Wine Flight?
To get the most out of a wine flight, you’ll want the wines you’re comparing to be similar enough for you to pick out the subtle differences between them. A well-themed wine flight will isolate a particular characteristic of the wine, making it stand out among each wine selected. If you’re studying wine, you may want to develop a flight that will help you pick out particular varietals or the amount of oak aging, for example.
If you’re just looking for a fun evening with friends, however, any theme will do. Even a silly theme (like amusing wine labels) will likely make for a memorable evening and introduce you to some new favorite wines.
Wine Tasting Biases to Explore
It’s pretty common for preconceived notions about wine to influence how people feel about them. In fact, there’s a famous study that was done by a French researcher, Frédéric Brochet, who collected tasting notes on identical bottles of a mid-range Bordeaux. They only differed in label. One was labeled as a cheap table wine, the other an expensive vintage. According to the study, the tasters called the wine with the cheap label “short, light, and faulty.” They described the supposed expensive vintage as “woody, complex, and round.” Such tasting biases are particularly interesting to use as the basis of wine tastings.
The above study by Brochet is an example of price bias, in which people assume that expensive wines are better and thus rate them so. Many other blind tasting studies have also tested whether tasters can identify expensive wines out of a bunch of cheap ones, and the answer is generally no. Sommeliers can, but most wine drinkers will get just as much enjoyment from either. We suspect that the elitism that people expect of the wine industry is part of the reason this makes such a fun basis for a wine flight. Can you and your friends identify the most expensive bottle of wine in the line-up via blind tasting?
Curiously, the people are also strongly influenced by wine color in how they describe wine flavors. In some of Brochet’s experiments, for example, he served a white wine that tasters described as “fresh, dry, honeyed, lively.” After adding a flavorless red dye to the very same wine, tasters now described it as they would a red wine. They called it “intense, spicy, supple, deep.” To get around this, you could potentially arrange a literal blind tasting (with blindfolds!) or use black, opaque wine glasses. You’d miss other aspects of the wine in not being able to see it, however.
Geographic Origin Bias
This is another common bias based on the idea that some wine regions are superior to others. In one set of experiments, researchers labeled the same wine as being from France, California, or Texas. It turned out that all of them were the same Texan wine, but the people rated the wine better if it had labels from either of the other two locations. This is another reason that blind tastings are so important for proper wine judging.
Types of Comparative Tastings
You can design a comparative tasting around almost any theme or type of wine. A well-designed wine flight usually has some sort of goal, however. It may be as simple, like getting to know your local winery. It could also be much more complicated. For example, you may want to learn to taste the differences between wines from the same grapes grown in different terroirs. In any case, the wines should not be random. All wines in the wine flight should have at least one thing in common.
In blind tastings, tasters do not see the wine’s label or bottle shape. This eliminates most of the biases we mentioned in the previous section so that the taster can be as impartial as possible, operating without prejudices based on price or origin. As we mentioned above, opaque wine glasses could also be used to get around color bias if the intention is solely to base judgment on aromas and flavors.
In vertical tastings, tasters sample different vintages of the same style from the same winery. For example, you can collect all your favorite winery’s Cabernet Sauvignons from from a five year period and taste each in sequence. You could also choose vintages from different decades. These types of tastings will give you a sense of the evolution of the wine as it is cellared and also of the potential of the specific winery.
Horizontal tastings are another interesting way to study wines. For these, you choose wines of the same vintage, but from different wineries. It’s also good to keep to the same wine appellation and type, so that comparing their flavors and other characteristics makes sense. These tastings might help you decide which winery is best for the style you most enjoy.
Diagonal tastings are more of a free for all. For these, you’ll line up wines belonging to the same area or appellation, but they may be from different wineries and vintages. Although these may not offer much in the way of comparison, they’re still fun for sampling lots of different wines. You can still evaluate each wine individually, too.
Varietal tastings are a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with with individual wine grape varieties. Tasting monovarietal wines, isolating the flavors and aromas, and experiencing them side by side will help you learn how to identify them in other wines. Other varietal tasting flights explore the differences in wines produced from the same grapes but in different regions. This is a great way to explore the effects of terroir, which includes climate, terrain, soil composition, and traditions related to making the wines. All of these impact the final characteristics of wine.
Tasting by Region
Tasting wines from the same territory is another interesting way to explore terroir. For these, you collect wines from a narrow wine region or specific appellation, comparing the effects of soil composition and climate. It requires much practice and deep study, but you may learn to recognize the influences of a particular area on its wine. Geology and climate are intimately tied to the flavors and aromas of wines we drink.
Where to Find Wines for Wine Tastings
Support your local wineries! Even if you don’t live in Italy or France, you’re bound to find wonderful local wineries that likely host tastings of their own to inspire you. Every state in the US grows grapes and makes wines, so find out what your area does best and explore. There are also numerous lists of best wineries by state out there to help you get started.
Local Wine Stores
Developing a relationship with a local wine store can be one of the best ways to discover new wines. It’s even better if the owner also loves wine or hires someone who does to help advise customers on purchases. They can keep you in the know anytime new and interesting vintages arrive at the shop. Like many wine lovers, they’re probably eager to share their ideas for interesting wine flights, too.
Wine Searcher is by far one of our favorite resources for tracking down wines on the internet. Their database pulls in information from local wine stores across the US, many of which will ship bottles to you. This makes them one of the most powerful resources for pulling together an interesting wine flight with almost any theme you can imagine.
10 Great Wine Flight Ideas
Without further ado, here is a list of ten wine flight ideas for you to try. Some are broadly-themed, some are meant to be educational, but all of them will be delicious and fun.
1. Local Winery Vertical and Horizontal Tastings
We know we keep going on and on about supporting your local winemakers, but we must do it one last time. Most of them host tastings, so if you’re planning a tasting event at home, you can scout out the wines ahead of time by going directly to the source. They’ll likely have some interesting suggestions for tasting flights that go beyond what they’re pouring for visitors, too.
We love recommending these tastings because it means there’s a great chance you and your friends will find a local wine that you love. That means it will likely be easily accessible, plus it’s a fantastic way to support local winemakers.
2. Cheap Wines vs. Expensive Wines
This is one of the best ways to challenge the price bias. Put together a flight of wines of the same style and of a similar age, if possible. Then do a blind tasting and ask people to choose their favorites. How did the cheap wines compare to the expensive ones?
We love that this challenges the notion that only expensive wines are good. The reality is that there are some excellent wines that won’t break the bank. Many inexpensive wines have been making headlines in recent years for winning awards, like this $6 Malbec that was sold through Walmart.
3. Oaked vs. Unoaked Wines
Want to learn how oaking a wine changes its flavors and aromas? One of the best ways to do this is to directly compare oaked and unoaked wines from the same source. Choose some Chardonnays from the same region, or even better, the same winery. That way you can taste the precise effects of barrel maturation on the final product.
For this tasting, begin with the unoaked Chardonnay. Be sure to note all aspects of the wine, from color and texture to aroma and taste. Next, try the oaked version. You’ll be stunned by the emergence of all the buttery, vanilla flavors. They come from aging in oak barrels, not the grapes.
4. Oak Aging in Red Wines
This wine flight would be an excellent follow-up to the last one, helping you refine your palate and detect the effect of oak aging in red wines. These will have less of a contrast, given that most red wines are aged in oak for some length of time. This wine flight will help you pick out the effects of this aging over the whole spectrum.
For this wine flight, it’s easiest to go with wines that use the length of oak-aging as part of their classification system. Tempranillos from Spain are a great example. You can progress through Rioja Vin Joven, Rioja Crianza, Rioja Reserva, and then finally Rioja Gran Reserva to experience least oaking to most oaking.
If you’re learning to identify oak-aging, we recommend working your way through these a few times, taking notes, and practicing. If you want to test yourself, you can have a friend set up a blind tasting and see if you can put the wines in the right order. Note that this may take some practice, but relax and enjoy the process. Practice will make perfect.
5. Learning to Taste Tannins
Tannins are what give wine a dry, astringent quality. Many people think red wines have tannins and white wines do not, but this isn’t true. White wines do have tannins, just not as many. Red wines have a lot more tannins because they spend so much more time in contact with the grape skins than white wines do. This extra time allows the tannins in the skin to dissolve in the water and alcohol.
This wine flight will help you learn to taste tannins using a spectrum of red wines that range from light to bold. Start with a light-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir, then a medium-bodied red like a Cabernet Franc or Sangiovese. Finish with bolder reds, like Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs. Here’s a wonderful chart to illustrate the full spectrum of red wines and guide you.
6. Young vs. Aged Wines
There are numerous options for this wine flight, which will illustrate how much wines can change when they’re cellared. A popular choice is to compare young Port vs. aged Port, since the sweetness and flavor profile shifts so dramatically over time.
Once again, we recommend choosing young and aged Port wines from the same winery so that each wine began on the same footing. They’ll be from the same grapes and grown in the same soil for best comparison. Note the changes in color, sweetness, and richness of the flavors. A lot of the subtler flavors in the young Port will intensify over time.
7. Champagne vs. Prosecco
The battle of the bubblies! Many people dismiss Champagne and Prosecco as being the same, despite the differing price points. They are quite different, however. While they’re both sparkling wines, they hail from different places and are made by different methods using different grapes. You’ll find that flavor profiles are also quite different. In considering the fruitiness of each, for example, Champagne has more citrusy orange notes, with hints of peach and Rainier cherry. Prosecco will give you pears, melon, and green apple.
To get the most from this comparative tasting, be sure to get high quality Champagne and Prosecco. In other words, the Champagne should actually come from the Champagne region in France. For the Prosecco, choose something from the Veneto region in Italy.
8. Warm vs. Cold Climate Grapes
The theme for this varietal tasting is same grape, different growth conditions. These wine flights can beautifully illustrate the impact of climate on the final wine that a grape produces. Sunny, warm weather can completely change the flavor profile, influencing the sweetness, fruitiness, and body of the wine.
If you like white wines, try this with Rieslings from different regions, perhaps one from Germany for cold weather and one from Southern Italy for warm weather. For red wine examples, go with Pinot Noir. Compare a Pinot Noir from a cold region like Alsace in France with one from a warmer region like Spain or Italy. You’ll find the flavors and aromas to be quite different.
9. Early vs. Late Harvest Grapes
This wine flight will illustrate the challenges that wineries face in choosing exactly the right time for harvest, since the timing can change the final wine significantly. As grapes linger on the vine and ripen, they get sweeter. Winemakers will wait until they get to the perfect level of ripeness and sweetness before harvest.
Syrah and Shiraz are an excellent choice for this exercise. Syrah are harvested early, Shiraz are harvested late. You’ll notice that the Syrah has a lot of herbaceous flavors, while Shiraz has more sweetness, tasting of blackberries.
10. Old World vs. New World
To fully embrace the challenges of understanding how the terroir influences wines, you should explore wines produced in the old world (Europe) and the new world (Americas, Oceania, and everywhere else). Choose a particular grape or wine and compare bottles from different regions. It’s a great way to pull in your understandings of all these factors, including the timing of harvest, soil conditions, and weather.
If you love white wines, compare some examples of Pinot Gris from California with others from around the world. For red wines, try Zinfandels or Malbecs. Comparing Bordeauxs from around the world would also be interesting, keeping in mind that there are variations in what the blends contain.