Before You Take That First Sip

WINE REVEALS ITS PLEASURES best when approached in a somewhat systematic way, exposed to as many of our sensory apparati as possible. That doesn't mean you should make a spectacle of yourself when you taste wine, or try to out-inhale your dinner partner, as some people do. It does mean that you should think about the wine as something special and try to remember your impressions.

The rewards are immediate and self-evident and will enforce the habit. I confess that for years I drank wine without spreading it around in my mouth. That may sound like a trifle in a firmament of oversights, but it is a common and unfortunate one. Filling one's mouth with wine is the only way to fully appreciate it.

However, you can tell a great deal about a wine without tasting it. In fact, a wine drinker should have a real idea of a wine's assets and shortcomings before he ever tastes it. First,

look at the wine by tilting the glass

away from you, against a light background. Red wine should be clear and

bright, with good color spread to the

wine's meniscus, or rim. A browning

tinge in older wine is not a defect;

cloudiness is a defect, unless the wine

contains sediment that has been

shaken up during careless pouring. A

brownish tinge in white wine is a bad

sign, except in certain dessert wines capable of age. A deeply golden wine is usually either sweet, like a German auslese, or "toasty," having spent time in oak, like a burgundy or a big California chardonnay.

Next, smell the wine. You are searching for varietal character -- the identification of the grape, the complexity and power of the fruit and structural defects. If the wine smells funny, it is probably going to taste funny, too, although wines smelled shortly after the bottles have been opened may change radically in the glass. For instance, the smell of sulphur, used legitimately to sterilize wine, may dissipate completely. "Off" odors are those picked up in careless wine-making. They are unpleasant and may never go away.

After two or three sniffs, take a mouthful of wine and spread it around. Previous impressions from the nose should be reinforced and augmented. During this "attack," you concentrate on the fruit -- the intensity and variation in flavor -- and "body" -- the heft of the wine. Breathe in over the wine with your mouth closed and then breathe out through your nose. This brings the vapors high into the nasal cavity for a concentrated impression.

The so-called "middle palate" is a kind of second gear in tasting, giving the wine a chance to expand. In a balanced wine, the fruit, alcohol and acid are harmonious. A wine deficient in fruit will taste diluted, watery. Too much alcohol gives the sensation of heat in the mouth.

The puckering sensation is produced by tannin, which preserves red wine and should subside with age. Acid is the wine's "backbone." Too little of it leaves a wine tasting dull and flat. In whites, acid contributes to the crisp, clean sensation that can make even an off-duty riesling refreshing.

The "finish" is the impression left in the mouth. A good wine should linger and even change in taste long after it has been swallowed. A great wine properly tasted sets its own drinking tempo and carves a niche in the receptive mind.