"Wine-tasting is both a very simple and an extremely complex art or science or skill. It may quite properly be described as any of these, or a combination of all three." Frank Schoonmaker
To me, the first preparatory step toward tasting a wine - even before filling a glass - is to decide what I want to achieve.
The brain needn't be activated beyond a basic hand-to-mouth motor coordination level if the goal is to quench thirst or wash down food. It needs to rev up a little if I'm going to evaluate the wine in terms of like or dislike and real concentration is called for when I'm going to try to analyze the wine's character. Nothing else really changes because everyone follows the same basic pattern when tasting. It's instinctive.
First, the eyes record the color (and, at a more advanced level, its depth and hue). Next, as the glass is raised, the nose takes over and sends early warning signals on how the wine will taste. If you doubt the interdependence of smell and taste, hold your nose while tasting. Your impressions will be very hazy. Third, the wine is taken into the mouth, bounces off the taste buds like a ball striking the flippers of a pinball machine, and is swallowed.
That's it. You grab some air and begin again or wince and opt for another beverage.
As the late Frank Schoonmarker, a distinguished wine merchant and author, indicated, each step of the process can become more complex. But it all can be reduced to deciding whether a wine is sweet, acid or bitter. Alexis Bespaloff put it this way in his Guide to Inexpensive Wines :
"Strong tea is a bitter solution dominated by tannin; if you add a slice of lemon you add acidity, and if you then add sugar to mask the first two elements, you have created a simple combination of sour, sweet and bitter. These are the three elements you find in wine, although in a more subtle and better-balanced combination."
An excellent, short "correspondence course" on "French Wines" produced by Foods and Wines from France gives this advice for a more detailed approach:
"Fill a glass one-third to one-half full. Hold the glass by the stem, tilt it slightly against a well-lighted, white background and examine it for color. There are two aspects to consider in a wine's color: one is its clarity and the other is its actual hue. A sound wine is clear and bright. . .
"Color, or hue, tells us about a wine's type, age and substance. Each white has its own characteristic color . . . As a wine ages, its color changes. Red wines generally lose their vibrant shades and become lighter, changing to a brick color in old age. White wines become darker, changing finally to old gold. (To judge clarity, look into the wine against a white background. To judge color, tip the glass away and study only the line where it meets the glass. Flourescent light will distort color.)
"The substance of a wine's color can be judged by its deepness. Wine made of good, ripe grapes will have a deeper, fuller color than wine made of relatively unripe grapes.
"Next swirl the glass, either on the table or while you hold it, to aerate the wine and thus release the bouquet. Bring the glass to your nose and inhale the aroma . . . Smell helps you define how fruity or flowery a wine is and to point out both positive qualities and faults . . .
"Finally, take a sip and swirl it around your mouth to get the full flavor. Draw a small amount of air into your mouth and let it mix with the wine. This further releases the flavor. The slurping sound . . . is quite acceptable at wine tastings."
The freedom to slurp at public gatherings and get away with it is one of the joys of being considered a wine connoisseur.
Next week: More on tasting