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I am looking for some recommendations for wines for a wine tasting party I’m giving for some friends (6-8 people). We have all been exploring wine for some time, but have yet to do anything in an organized manner.

What I want to do is taste red wine varietals. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, and one more which I have not decided upon. The idea is to note the differences between the wines, and not so much as to critique them (although I did print lists of wine descriptors which I plagiarized from Riedel’s website to help us out).

With that in mind, I would like the wines to be “typical” of what the varietal should taste like and I would like to stay around $20 a bottle.

Also, I need help with what order to go in and any other help would be greatly appreciated. I plan to do a first taste of the wines before any food is served, then taste with some various fruits, cheeses and salamis, and then finish by serving grilled steaks with more generous portions of the wines. If we are up for it after all of that, I’m thinking of chocolate truffles and port for desert.

Thank you for your help.
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What I want to do is taste red wine varietals. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, and one more which I have not decided upon

If you want to do around $20, don't overlook Australia and South America.

You can get merlot for around $20 in the US too - Chateau St Michelle is a good choice. They have several bottlings and they're widely available and show good typicity. Columbia Crest too, but see if you can find the reserve bottlings. They're around $20 - $25 and quite good for the price. Whitehall Lane also makes a good reserve merlot for around the same price.

All of the above make cabs too and you may want to look for those. Not to get into the "typical" character of the various grapes, but sometimes they are so plush and ripe in CA or some parts of Australia that you can't really tell what you have. Gross generalization, but WA will give you better quality for the money at your price range.

However, if you look around outside of Napa, CA has good cabs too. Beckmen if you can find it is a good intro. Beaulieau Vineyards makes several lines but the Rutherford cab is one of the best values in Napa and readily available. It's not crap wine at all and it's a classic American cab so I'd include it if I were you. Their Coastal Series or Napa series aren't much to talk about however, so make sure you get the Rutherford.

And Chile is making some cabs that people really like. I tend not to because they always seem to have a green note. But they are typical. Casa Lapostole Alexander Valley merlot is a perfect example of the grape and their cab is likewise. They are more "French" in style.

You can also look to Bordeaux, but unless you know the wine, you'll likely get a blend and you wanted varietal specific wines. However, you can get straight syrah from France and that may be something to consider. If you can find a Crozes-Hermitage, that would be excellent. Those are usually the lower end of North Rhone in terms of pricing, but with the Euro today, they may be over your budget. So you can look around for something from the Languedoc or South France. France is where syrah came from so it would be good to find one. However, Australia has made syrah it's signature grape and you can find hundreds at your price point. They will be different in style for the most part, so you need to decide which you like. Just for fun, I'd probably include one really ripe job from Barossa and one more restrained from the Rhone and see if people could detect any similarity. And don't overlook South Africa - they have some decent ones in your price range, although they still turn out a lot of swill at that range IMO.

Zin - there are too many to count and it's really only important in the US, so you need to look for something from CA.

For the last grape, you'll get all kinds of suggestions. Pinot Noir is a pretty good choice actually, since it's available, popular, and bottled as a monovarietal and rarely blended. It's probably a good choice because it's also made in many different countries. You can sometimes find a generic Santenay that drinks well. I'd put in something like that because it will give people an idea of the grape and it will still have some character from the area.

Anyhow, just my 2 cts. Good luck and have fun.
I feel I learn alot when I try to pick up all of the varietals by one particular producer. The style would be similar and hopefully the varietal is the one that shows the characteristics.

Wolf blass reserve lines, Columbia crests, Mondavi are all readily available and affordable.

Or as GregT suggested with all of his suggestions, pick a grape and pick different regions for comparison.
I am new to wine "education" myself, and have been told that the Columbia Crest Grand Estates wines are good textbok examples in the under $20 range. I have tried the Merlot and Cabernet and enjoyed them very much. I haven't moved on to food pairings just yet, still developing a feel for flavor, body, tannins, etc. Have fun and let us know how it goes!
I went to a wine class earlier this week and had the sommelier help me with the order of which to taste the wines. She suggested lightest to fullest body. So now I have all of my selections except the syrah (which will be last in the order):

1) 2005 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir Bourgogne ($18.99)
2) 2000 Noah Napa Valley Estate Bottled Merlot ($14.99)
3) 2005 Dry Creek “Old Vines” Zinfandel ($28.99)
4) 2005 Beaulieau Vineyards Napa Valley Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($25.99)
5) ? Syrah

As beginners not looking to “critique” the wines, but instead to note the differences between them, are there any basic areas we should stick to such as body, the four basic tastes, etc? (I realize there are actually five tastes, but as beginners I’m not counting on anyone really knowing much about the fifth one.) Also, should any of these be decanted, and if so for how long? (I only have two decanters.)
With most of the wines you are tasting fairly young, I would decant them. What people sometimes do is double-decant which entails pouring the wine to a decanter then back to the bottle using a funnel (a clean one, of course) of some sort. So all you need really is one decanter. Just note, the wine funnel sometimes come with a filter that catches any solids floating in the wine.
As beginners not looking to “critique” the wines, but instead to note the differences between them, are there any basic areas we should stick to

Note the differences and whether you like the wine or not. That's a good critique.

See how long the flavors last in your mouth. If the taste of the wine changes in the glass after an hour or so (the point of decanting). Does it fill your mouth with flavor from the moment you sip it? Taste it the way you would taste anything else. If you ordered a really interesting dish at some new restaurant, wouldn't you pay attention to what you were tasting? Same thing. Don't make it too difficult - wine is just a beverage.

What's the syrah? Interesting that all the wines are 2005 except for the 2000 merlot. Why not just get a 2005 merlot too?
The syrah ended up being a 2003 Jean-Luc Colombo "La Violette" ($19.95).

The syrah could have easily been served on either side of the zinfandel. I hadn't paid attention to the years, the 2005's were just a coincidence, although I did notice everything was young.

The pinot noir was light bodied and fruity. It was nice but nothing really seemed to stand out about it.

The merlot had a little more body with a lot of plum in the taste.

The zinfandel was really nice. I would say it had a nice balance; nothing about it seemed out of place. It had a rounded mouth feel. I'm still a little confused about tannins so I'll go out on a limb and say the tannins were soft/fine. A little bit of raspberry in the taste, just the right amount for me actually. No strong oak/wood flavors but still some smoke.

The cabernet suavignon was bigger in mouth feel than the zinfandel and it was harder to figure out. More complexity than the others. A couple of people really liked it.

The syrah was an unexpected pleasure. Some nice strawberry in the taste. It seemed (to me at least) to be more delicate in mouth feel than the cab and even the zin. This was definitely the sit down, relax, take your time, and enjoy it wine of the bunch.

I had tried zinfandel before and didn't like it. I had never given much thought to syrah. After this however, I am looking forward to trying more of them. Out of all 5 wines, these are the two that I will buy another bottle of.
I realize your tasting has already taken place. However, if you do a repeat or are interested in more info to help "newbies" get started tasting, there is a website called "Wine for Newbies" ( I'd post it as a link, but I don't know how!!! Anyway, go to the audio lessons--the first two are helpful and not overwhelming. The subsequent lessons build on that foundation. Have Fun!

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