What's in the Glass?
Posted: June 17, 2009
I have what I consider to be a healthy skepticism towards wine-related gadgetry those devices that by their own claims would revolutionize the way we store, prepare, serve, or otherwise enjoy wine. I usually hold that those traditions we have, we have because of effectiveness.
However, the one gimmick - at least considered a gimmick to most wine outsiders I've met - that I completely buy into is the role that well-designed glassware plays in the enjoyment of wine. Friends who aren't wine people come over to my place and often ask about my four different kinds of glasses (four really isn't a lot). This, to me, is an open invitation to play the "let's compare the same wine from different glasses" game. I keep some heavy, clunky, small-bowled glasses hidden away for comparison in these occasions. People probably think I'm crazy, especially when I continue to force them to swirl, sniff and sip long after they've proclaimed "Seriously, I believe you! We're missing the game, dude!" Then I always go into an explanation involving the flow of wine onto the tongue, directed by the shape of the glass and the thickness of the rim. I mention the way the shape of the bowl allows the wine to breathe and focuses and shapes the wine's aromas. I go on and on. A few years ago, I was lucky to sit in on a seminar hosted by the Riedel Crystal company. We tasted different wines in the four most popular Riedel Vinum glasses the Vinum Bordeaux, Montrachet, Burgundy and Sauvignon Blanc stems and also tasted the same wines from big, heavy, clunky generic glasses. The first lesson was obvious compared to the poorly designed, thick, chunky glasses, the Vinum stems really bring out the beauty in wine, heightening intensity and bringing into focus the qualities a taster looks for. The Riedel representative pointed out that the glasses don't always make the wine taste better, that they would further expose a flawed wine's weaknesses. In fact, I wasn't impressed by the cabernet sauvignon being poured that night, and the Vinum Cabernet glass just pulled the flaws of the wine right into focus. But perhaps the more surprising lesson that I took from the seminar was the effects the different Riedel Vinum glasses had on shaping the profile of each wine. A California chardonnay tasted from one glass showed overwhelmingly present vanilla and butter, but the same chardonnay tasted from a different glass was much more centered on tropical fruit, with hints of oak in the background. Steve Kregling, a wine consultant at the Skokie Binny's is a true believer in the right glass for the right wine philosophy. His basic explanation for why certain glassware works better with certain wines is that they are designed to, in essence, boost or trim back certain ranges of a wine's profile, similar to how an EQ filter on a component stereo can boost a recording's mids and bass while cutting back the harsh treble. Or, to be more modern, it's like switching your iPod presets from jazz to rock. Steve owns 8-10 different glasses, and loves to try the same wine from different glasses, looking for the perfect glass to best show the features of the night's wine. I'm envious, but like I said above, I only own four different kinds of glasses. This is mostly because I'm poor, and because I've found a few glasses that I feel offer good versatility for what I drink at home. And that's the advice I'd give to a beginner who is just getting into wine, or a customer considering a glassware purchase. Every taster out there needn't own a whole cabinet of expensive stems - try different wines from different glasses, attend tasting seminars if possible, take note of how wines are being served at restaurants. Start with glasses designed for your favorite wines, and expand you collection from there, keeping in mind your tastes and also versatility. Don't limit yourself to the most expensive glasses Riedel produces excellent stems, but compare other producers as well I do a LOT of tastings with my trusty Schott Zwiesel Forte set (pictured in this blog entry), and with Riedel's less-expensive Ouveture line. What about you? What are your experiences with glassware? What is your favorite glass, and what is your collection like? Leave a comment below.