Drinking wine is easy: tilt the wineglass and swallow.

Tasting wine is more of a challenge. You need special tools, proper environment, keen concentration, a good memory and a vivid imagination. Really tasting wine adds an extra dimension to the basic routine of eating and drinking. It turns obligation into pleasure, a necessity into a celebration of life.

So what is wine tasting all about? The goal is to understand a wine, not unmask it.

Look, smell, taste

There are three broad components in wine tasting: Appearance, Aroma, and Taste. Look at the wine, smell it, then taste — and finally (if you are tasting more than four wines and don’t want to end up under the table by the end of the evening) spit out the sample.

The first step is visual — and it is essential to use a long-stemmed wine glass that does not have any patterns or etchings that will detract and distract. Fill the wineglass about one-third full, never more than half-full. Pick it up by the stem (holding the glass by the bowl hides the liquid from view; fingerprints blur its colour; the heat of your hand alters the wine’s temperature) and focus on hue, intensity and clarity. Red wines lighten in colour with age, while whites deepen.

The wine should be clear (not cloudy) and bright. Swirl the wine in the glass to examine the ‘tears’ that form along the inside of the bowl — this is an indication of the amount of alcohol in the wine (the more tears, the more alcohol).

Next, smell the wine by sticking your nose right into the wine glass and sniffing.

Complex aromas emanate from the wine: these range from flowery, fruity, mineral, herbaceous (grassy) and spicy to burnt, animal (‘cat’s pee’ is a famous negative) and even ethereal (waxy), and each indicate the wine’s quality and desirability.

With the aromas still reverberating through your senses, put the glass to your lips and sip — but don’t swallow! Roll the wine all around your mouth and even try to ‘chew’ the wine to draw out its flavour. After you swallow, exhale slowly through both the nose and mouth.

The tastes you will be exposed to fall into several categories — the first is the ‘dryness’ or level of sugar in the wine, which is immediately apparent: to an untrained palate, a really dry wine comes across as sour! The next is the acid/ alcohol balance, which manifests itself as the ‘mouth-feel’ of the wine — whether it is crisp/ sharp, watery or heavy.

Red wines may give a woody or astringent taste, depending on how the production process has been handled. And, lastly, there is the aftertaste — young wines have little or no aftertaste, while a good wine will leave a warm, lingering feeling in the back of your throat.

Most of the time, most of us drink young, simple wines. And once in a while we get lucky: a special night, close friends, an extraordinary bottle of wine — that’s what it’s all about. — Alok Chandra