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 prepare the perfect wine flight for comparative tasting. We’ll also discuss 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.
However, if you’re looking for a fun evening with friends, 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 standard for preconceived notions about wine to influence how people feel about them.
Study on Biases
A famous study by a French researcher, Frédéric Brochet, explained the biases. He collected tasting notes on identical bottles of a mid-range Bordeaux, which differed in the label. One was labeled 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.
Here are some common biases that influence people’s opinions:
1. Price Bias
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?
2. Color bias
Curiously, the people are also strongly influenced by wine color in describing wine flavors. For example, in some of Brochet’s experiments, he served a white wine that tasters described as “fresh, dry, honeyed, lively.” After adding a flavorless red dye to the same wine, tasters now described it as a red wine. They called it “intense, spicy, supple, deep.” You could potentially arrange a literal blind tasting (with blindfolds!) or use black, opaque wine glasses to get around this. However, you’d miss other aspects of the wine in doing so as you will not be able to see it.
3. 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 France or California. This is another reason that blind tastings are so crucial 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 goal, however. It may be as simple as 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.
1. Blind tasting
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, you can also use opaque wine glasses to get around color bias if the intention is sole to base judgment on aromas and flavors.
2. Vertical Tasting
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 five years and taste each in sequence. You could also choose vintages from different decades. These tastings will give you a sense of the evolution of the wine as it is cellared and the potential of the specific winery.
3. Horizontal Tasting
Horizontal tastings are another exciting way to study wines. You choose wines of the same vintage but from different wineries for these. 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.
4. Diagonal Tasting
Diagonal tastings are more of a free-for. 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 other wines. You can still evaluate each wine individually, too.
5. Varietal Tasting
Varietal tastings are a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with individual wine grape varieties. Tasting mono-varietal 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.
6. Tasting by Region
Tasting wines from the same territory is another exciting way to explore terroir. For this, 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 environment are intimately tied to the flavors and aromas of wines we drink.
Where to Find Wines for Wine Tastings?
1. Local Wineries
Support your local wineries! Even if you don’t live in Italy or France, you’re bound to find fantastic 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 the state to help you get started.
2. 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 exciting 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 potent resources for pulling together an exciting wine flight with almost any theme you can imagine.
10 Great Wine Flight Creation 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. If possible, put together a flight of wines of the same style and similar age. 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 some excellent wines won’t break the bank. Many inexpensive wines have been making headlines in recent years to win awards, like this $6 Malbec 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 is to compare oaked and unoaked wines from the same source directly. 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 is 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 correct 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 the 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 beautiful 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, illustrating 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 shift dramatically over time.
Once again, we recommend choosing young and aged Port wines from the same winery so that each wine begins 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 the same, despite the differing price points. They are pretty different, however. While they’re both sparkling wines, they hail from other places and are made by various 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 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 the 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 wine’s sweetness, fruitiness, and body.
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 a warmer area 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 precisely 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 excellent choices for this exercise. Syrah is harvested early, and Shiraz is 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 understanding of all these factors, including the timing of harvest, soil conditions, and weather.
If you love white wines, compare some 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.
You are ready to create your Wine Flight to start exploring and learning.
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