The Importance of the Right Wine Glass

 The Importance of the Right Wine Glass

By David Allen MW 
Riedel's Vinum range can be an expensive, but rewarding, indulgence for the wine lover.

Wine glasses can be expensive, but can they really alter how you taste a wine?

Your choice of the right wine glass can influence your appreciation and enjoyment of the wines you consume.

Personally, I am a fan of Austrian crystal manufacturer Riedel's range of variety-specific wine glasses, and have a collection of their Vinum wine glasses.

Built up over a number of years, that collection amounts to about six dozen glasses of 12 different types, give or take a few breakages along the way. My collection also includes a handful of the Sommelier range, which are larger, more expensive and hand-blown crystal. The collection would probably cost a few thousand dollars to replace and requires a piece of furniture to house it – but does spending upwards of $50 per glass enhance your enjoyment of the wines you drink?  Georg Riedel and his son Maximilian have built much of their current reputation as wine glass makers on the idea that the shape of a wineglass determines the flow of the wine into the mouth and consequently where it touches the various taste zones of the tongue. The idea is that sweetness is tasted on the tip of the tongue, acidity and saltiness on the sides and bitterness at the back. Their argument is that the shape of the glass can direct the flow of the wine to the right zone of the tongue to best flatter each variety – they manufacture a number of ranges of wine glass that address this.

Jancis Robinson, who markets her own universal wine glass, admits on her website that "a different glass for each different wine may increase potential pleasure by a few per cent", but goes on to cite the space large wine glass-collections take up and the difficulty of telling the differing glasses apart as just a few of the potential downsides. Robinson offers the view that "just one glass for all wines makes perfect practical sense". 

So am I wrong? Have I been seduced by Georg and Max Riedel's marketing into buying a stack of crystal glasses I don't really need? Would I have been better off buying a single set of utilitarian glasses? Certainly, for my WSET diploma and MW studies I always relied on a set of ISO (International Standards Organization) glasses. If you can pass challenging wine exams with ISOs does anyone really need more than that?

First let's point out that neither I nor Jancis Robinson is arguing in absolutes here. She allows that a glass may increase potential pleasure, but sees this as a marginal improvement. My view is that there are some wines that benefit more from being drunk from the right glass than others. I'm not sure if there is a huge difference between a Chardonnay consumed from a Riedel Chardonnay glass, a Chianti glass or even a Sauvignon Blanc glass. Where individual drinkers sit in relation to this argument will vary with their point of view, but for me a few wines benefit significantly from being served in specialist wine glasses and these are Pinot Noir, Champagne and sweet wines.

A large Pinot Noir, please

It is conventional wisdom that a larger bowl on a glass gives more room to swirl a wine before drinking, breaking the surface tension and allowing the liquid to release its aromas more readily. To ensure this can be done without risk to clothes, carpets or nearby upholstery it is important to resist the urge to fill a large glass to the brim.

The delicate and complex aromatics of Pinot Noir are so much easier to assess from a large balloon-style glass that releases and retains these aromas. For me a large balloon class makes a huge difference to Pinot Noir, especially for older wines with more developed and complex aromas. I have even found that Pinotage, a variety of which I am not normally a fan of, can be enhanced by drinking it from bulbous Pinot Noir glasses.
Downsizing the whites

White wines are traditionally served in smaller glasses than reds and it is reasonable to assume the aromas of a white wine would be just as well served as a red in a larger glass. My rationalization of the use for smaller glasses for white wine is that a smaller pour allows the wine to be drunk cooler, as the glass can be topped-up from the bottle, replaced in an ice-bucket between pours. This gives it a greater chance of it remaining cool and refreshing to the last drop. Using a larger glass for whites could create a trade-off between greater aromas and a warmer flabbier wine.

The Champagne dilemma

These days there are many advocates for serving Champagne in normal wine glasses. I don't agree with them, but again this is a matter of personal taste. The purpose of a traditional Champagne flute is to slow the release of the mousse, the bead of bubbles having to travel up the glass prior to release. That's in contrast to the stylish, but impractical, coupe glass, whose larger surface area allows the wine's sparkle to diffuse rapidly, leaving a still wine.
The stylish Zalto glasses are very thin and elegant, but need careful handling.

I assume the idea of serving Champagne or sparkling wine in a normal wine glass is to allow the drinker to better appreciate the aromas of the wine. Like all of us I want to appreciate a wine's aromas, it is just that Champagne's bubbles already do a good job of releasing those aromas. If you enjoy drinking Champagne from standard wine glasses you have to accept the trade-off that it will lose its sparkle more quickly. This approach makes more sense to me if you are drinking rich Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes with more flavor and if you are drinking Champagne to accompany a meal. My concession is that I use a wide, tulip shaped Champagne glass in preference to a taller, straight sided flute.

Does shape affect taste?

In my opinion, the idea that using the shape of the glass to direct wine to the most appropriate area of the tongue to flatter it, is most readily appreciated with sweet wines. The steeply curving rim of Reidel's Sommelier Sauternes glass, and its quite narrow aperture, serve to deliver the wine onto the tip of the tongue, which is where sweetness is detected in the Riedel model.

I am aware research demonstrates that sweetness receptors are found throughout the tongue and that salt, acidity and bitterness are also not tasted exclusively on any single zone of the tongue. When I drink, however, I notice I do generally detect sweetness on the tip of my tongue, acidity on the edges and bitterness at the back, so I assume that either the taste receptors for these sensations predominate in these zones of the tongue – or alternatively I have subconsciously trained myself to detect those sensations there.

Whichever is the case I find the effect produced by my Sauternes glasses is that the wine hits the tip of my tongue, giving the first impression of the wine's sweetness, before the balancing acidity is detected at the sides to harmonize the finish. I find this effect to be superior to that produced by glasses in other shapes – believe me, I am enough of a geek to have done several impromptu tests!

Lightness and durability

The thickness of the glass bowl undoubtedly influences the drinking experience, thick, chunky glass with a rolled-rim interrupts the smooth flow of wine onto the tongue. The corollary of this however is that wine glasses have become progressively lighter.

Zalto glasses have come to represent the epitome of lightness and elegance with their angular bowl-shapes, they stand out and are popular. Personally, I find their lightness a little alarming, with the nagging possibility of breaking them always sitting at the back of my mind – I have certainly broken a few expensive wine glasses while washing them. Durability, however, does not seem to be a huge issue with the Zalto glasses, while, on a personal note, I have learned how to clean and polish my wine glasses without breaking them – it is still a time-consuming process.

While serving Chablis in a glass designed for Sauvignon Blanc might well be an unacceptable faux-pas if committed by the sommelier in a Michelin starred restaurant, the choice of wine glass will normally be much less important for the rest of us. Undoubtedly most wine drinkers will give very little thought to the glasses they use. A small percentage of us will pay attention to selecting the right glasses and the extent of attention paid will vary according to an individual's priorities.

For many of us it is a luxury, while for the tiny number of consumers drinking Grand Cru Burgundy, vintage Krug or old Château d'Yquem, the purchase of glasses costing a couple of hundred dollars, – that can significantly enhance the drinking experience – seems a sensible investment.

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