The Order of things
By: George Balling
Ask a couple of wine professionals about any wine subject and you will be sure to get twice as many opinions as the number of wine “geeks” you asked. When you work in the world of wine it is very easy to get wrapped up in all of the nuance of wine and your opinions, to the point you will change your own mind a bunch of times prior to the end of the conversation. We received a question this week from one of our wine club members, and it is not the first time we have gotten this question. It is one we have had much personal experience with, and have heard arguments on both sides.
The question is, “When you are having a dinner party should you open the really good wine first or last?”
We first dealt with this question long before we opened the shop. When we lived at our home in Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley, we had our dining room just next to where our wine storage was located. We had many large dinner parties at that house, it could accommodate them. We always planned them pretty well and had the first lineup of bottles paired with the meal on the table. But as these parties went many times, we would end up pulling another bottle or two from the storage to round out the evening. It was always a bit of a challenge selecting, we wanted more of the really good bottles, but we also recognized that perhaps our and our guest’s palates were likely not at peak efficiency by this point. And so it went, just like this discussion different nights resulted in different results, sometimes we kept going with the good bottles and others we decided to dial our choices back just a bit.
Generally, recognizing that generalizations are always a bit fraught, we have come down on the side of having the better bottles earlier in the evening. It is a simple reality that as you drink more wine whether it be when you are at a tasting or at a dinner party, your palate abilities shrink. They are at their sharpest with the earlier glasses than the later ones. There is some science to support this too. Just like food tastes better in the first couple of bites. In both cases 90% of what we taste is actually what we smell, as your aromatic receptors become accustomed to what we are eating or drinking they will start to “tune out” the same aromas. We will be able to still appreciate the texture, palate weight and mouthfeel of the wine but we also notice that much of the aromatic and flavor nuance will be harder to “find” as we smell and sip. This is also why we recommend to folks that when they go wine tasting at wineries, they limit it to just three wineries per day, after that in all reality you won’t be tasting anything at all, and the wine simply becomes a delivery system.
This is also the reason to favor fuller bodied more flavorful and even wines with more oak barrel time as the night goes on. Simply put these bolder flavors will show up more to our senses after they have been conditioned by the glasses we have had earlier in any wine experience. Here is the challenge though, as we seek out wines with bigger bolder profiles it doesn’t necessarily mean that these will be less expensive bottles. If our goal is to drink the not quite so good wines that may be in contrast with finding those that are more assertive in how the wines present.
The counter argument though is that you want to have that perfectly designed pairing bottle with the main event of the night which is typically the meal. When that is the case, you will almost always be having the “better” bottle later in the night. While this back and forth can go on for a long time and we can make supporting arguments for either view point the most important advice is to really enjoy what you are drinking. Treat your guests and your self to the best bottles you can both early and late in the evening, but leaning toward less nuanced wines as the night moves on will result in you being able to taste more of those late-night bottles.