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Part I:  Mindful Tasting

Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says that when he eats a string bean, he can taste the sky and the earth and feels connected with the farmer who has grown the string bean and the cook who has prepared it.  This is because when he eats, he places all of his attention on the act of tasting and eating.  He eats slowly and mindfully, allowing a full range of perceptions to come to him.  This might be a hard thing for most of us to grasp.  In fact, most of us taste little more than the first bite of food that we eat.  We gulp down our food and drink as we thumb through the newspaper, engage in heated conversation, or even watch television. 

It is for this reason that wine tasting holds such appeal to our busy, utilitarian culture, and it is for this reason that wine enthusiasts treat the tasting process with so much care and detail.  If the simple string bean, plucked from the vine and trucked to our table can communicate so much to us in a whisper, then imagine what we will experience when we listen in to the complex tales a glass of wine might tell.   A glass of wine carries with it history, geography, nature, and invention.  Each detail in the wineís history adds a dimension to its character, and if we learn to taste carefully enough, we can significantly broaden the horizon of our senses. Learning to taste wine isnít just about wine; itís a contemplation on the interconnectedness of all things. 

Like humans, the older a wine, the more complex its flavor will be.  It has had more experience; it has been through more changes, and more chemical reactions.  It has evolved over time and yet has maintained some of the characteristics of its youth as well.  A younger wineís flavor may be more straightforward and fresh, expressing directly the character of the grape, a bright fruit essence.   

To uncover the flavor of a complex wine, you have to contemplate it deeply, taking the time to pay attention to the layers that make up the overall experience of drinking it.  Tasting wine, though, isnít like a science.  If you have listened to wine experts enough, you will know that their descriptions seem quite whimsical and artistic.  You may even suspect that the taster is making up descriptive adjectives to impress, as such characteristics could not possibly belong to a simple glass of wine. 

ďA round, soft red with an apple bite and an undertone of moss.Ē   

How could a glass of wine taste round and soft?  Apples?  An undertone of moss?  Please!  Who has tasted moss, anyway?  Plenty of snickers have been exchanged over descriptions of this sort.  You may also, though, have had an experience in which you have mindfully tasted a glass of wine, and an odd association has gone through your mind.  You caught a glimpse of a pine forest or experienced what could only be described as a buttery flavor.  Perhaps a fellow taster agrees with this ďpine and butterĒ impression.  You have sensed the mystical depths of wine tasting, and suddenly you can imagine what ďa bright silky red with an apple bite and an undertone of mossĒ might just taste like in one mindful sip of wine.   

Perhaps though, youíve sipped wine with dinner, had a glass at holidays and havenít gotten much past the ability to differentiate red from white and simply donít see what all the fuss is about.  If this is true for you, you owe it to yourself to experience the art of wine tasting, rather than simply the habit of tasting wine.   

Tasting wine should involve at least four of the five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch), and you want to give each sense the ability to work at its full potential.  Have you ever noticed that when you close your eyes, you can hear more acutely?  When tasting wine, you want to try to isolate your senses and pay separate attention to each.  Wine tasting procedures are intended to facilitate attention toward the different layers of the wine Ė the appearance, the texture, the aroma, the taste, the aftertaste.   The procedures are not meant to make you look like a fool.  So remember, when you are experimenting with wine tasting:  enjoyment is the key. After all, you arenít going to be given a test and you arenít responsible for coming up with the latest guidebook rating wines.  Open yourself up to the experience of the wine and who knows what might happen?  You might just get a taste of an intense, nutty white with a tropical melody.  You might just taste a California red that has a hint of chocolate and a sensuous mouth feel.  Who could resist that?   

Part II:  The Practice of Tasting

Many wine enthusiasts are very selective about the type of glass they will use to taste wines.   Select a glass whose rim resists spillage, and fill the glass one-thirds full to allow swirling.  Definitely choose a clear glass so that you can clearly see the contents.  Tilt the glass and hold it in front of a white surface to be sure that the background does not distort your image of the wine, for the first thing you will want to do is appreciate its appearance.  If you hold two different glasses of white wine in front of you, at first glance they will look the same.   Look closely, however, and you will see one has variations of gold and amber in one while the other looks lemony and clear.  These differences will be expressed also in the taste of the wine.  In reds, some will appear thick with a definite texture, others like rose-infused water that seems to reflect sunlight. When you swirl the wine in the glass and note how quickly it streams down the sides of the glass, you will learn about its viscosity.  The more slowly it descends, the denser the flavor will be and the higher the alcohol content.  Younger wines will tend to be less viscous, and thus have brighter flavors.  You will learn much about the character of a wine by simply gazing carefully at it, noticing things that you never noticed before.  In time, you will be able to anticipate elements of the wineís flavor simply by looking at it.    

After looking at the wine, you should close your eyes and engage your sense of smell.  Swirling the wine also releases more of its scent.  Taste and smell are inextricably bound to each other.  You will find, when you take in the aroma of wine, that it triggers the memory center in your brain.  Smell is the most powerful sense for conjuring up memory.  So, smelling the wine will give you the first impressions of its character, and these might be the most fanciful.  If the smell of the wine is reminiscent of roses, it is not your imagination.  Your memory of roses is really being triggered.  Imagine the roots of the grape vines intermingling with the roots of rose bushes under the ground.  Allow yourself time to collect the reminiscences.  Donít be surprised at what might come into your mind:  an aroma of rich soil, an unexpected fruit, green peppercorns, even the leather cover of antique books in your grandfatherís study.  Remember nature and human history are combined in a glass of wine.  You now have a preview of the wineís taste and placing it on your tongue will fill out that sketch.   

Donít start with a mouthful or a drop; a generous sip will let you perceive the most.  First swirl it in your mouth to get a sense of its weight and texture. This procedure will allow you to classify a wine as light, medium or full-bodied, but the analysis of texture is much more diverse and evocative than that. How does it feel on the tongue?  Does it have a rasp or does it feel smooth and silky?  Does it remind you of licking chalk or a smooth stone?  Or does it coat your tongue, evoking images of a sediment-rich pond, teeming with diversity?   Swirling the wine in your mouth also gets all of your taste buds involved in the experience.  Some expert tasters take in a breath of air when they swirl to activate the elements of the wine.  Now swallow and see what happens.  (Of course, if you are doing a lot of wine tasting, spitting out the sip will keep you a little more clear-headed.) With most foods and beverages an aftertaste is undesirable, but in wine, the time that the taste of wine lingers is precious.   

These procedures are simply meant to guide you toward tasting wine very mindfully, experiencing the dimensions that usually go by unnoticed because we are distracted, hurried or not tuned into the moment.  You may find that practicing wine tasting will lead you to have better taste in general.  You can adopt these methods of appreciation to tasting new and exotic cuisines, appreciating flower arrangements, listening to musicÖthe possibilities begin to spill out.  And so, you may gain some understanding of why wine enthusiasts are so passionate about what they do.  Theyíre simply focused on getting more enjoyment out of the simple things.

 

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