Need to change your glasses? Wine glasses, that is.
In a facetious moment I once wrote, ‘A great wine will taste good even out of a Wellington boot.’
Not that I ever put it to the test; but a whole industry has grown up to prove me wrong. Maybe not wrong, but misguided. Because the most renowned glass company in the world, Riedel (a business that dates back to 1756), has shown us that a wine tastes better from a glass designed to deliver it to certain parts of the palate. And this means specific glasses for specific wines.
The Robert Mondavi Winery was first out of the blocks to beat the drum for Riedel stemware. In the early 1990s I attended a tasting of Mondavi Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon served in three different glass shapes, one of which was the Riedel glass designed for wines made from those particular grape varieties. (You can replicate this tasting at home by taking a V-shaped cocktail glass, a water tumbler and a tulip-shaped glass). The result was a ‘Road to Damascus’ revelation. The wine really did taste better from the Riedel’s vessels.
‘Content commands shape’ is a maxim on Riedel’s website that sounds like something Marshall McLuhan might have uttered in his cups. But when it comes to the enjoyment of wine, shape does matter.
Which brings me to the question of champagne. The universal symbol for champagne is, unfortunately, the saucer-shaped coupe glass. This mini-birdbath was created for Queen Victoria who suffered flatulence when drinking champagne and needed something that would kill the bubbles. (Also used for that purpose was the swizzle stick that opens up like a Lilliputian umbrella without the fabric. By working it between the thumb and forefinger you can rid a sparkling wine of its bubbles before you can say, ‘What are you doing to my wine?’)
Let’s face it. Coupes are the worst possible receptacle for champagne. They provide a lake-like surface for the wine which causes it to go flat quickly and warms it up too fast; they give your nose a bath with every sip and you ‘backwash’ because of its large circumference that allows too much wine into your mouth at once. If you have these monstrosities at home, use them for ice cream; otherwise Dionysus will descend from the clouds and smite you with a vine stock.
The coupe went out of fashion when winemakers insisted that the best glasses for all sparkling wines are elongated flutes that look like cows’ udders. They maintained the wine at a more constant temperature and you can see the upwards passage of the bubbles. The small circumference makes you form your lips into the shape of a kiss that allows only a tiny amount of wine to enter your mouth with each sip.
But the wheel of fashion turns and sparkling wine producers now prefer their wines to be served in the standard glass for white wine – think of a pear-shaped glass narrowing to the rim that captures and holds the bouquet.
In 1999 I participated in a workshop at Inniskillin, conducted by Georg Riedel and Donald Ziraldo. The idea was to come up with a design for the perfect Icewine glass. After several flights in different glasses, the form that we finally zeroed in on - a shape that delivered the bouquet and flavours of Icewine most satisfactorily - was a tulip that narrows to a ‘V’ towards the stem, giving it more of a diamond silhouette.
Recently I did a comparison of stemware with Michael Vaughan, publisher of the newsletter, ‘Vintages Assessments.’ We lined up an ISO glass (the industry standard 7oz tasting glass), a Riedel Vinum Chardonnay/Montrachet glass, the Eisch ‘Breathable Glass’, the Lucaris Desire Universal, the Zalto Burgundy glass, Zalto Bordeaux, Zalto Universal for the white wines and added the Oberglas Passion Red glass for the red wines. Then we tasted the following wines from all the glasses.
Henry of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2015: The best results - the Zalto Burgundy glass ($79.95 a stem) with Riedel Vinum Chardonnay/Montrachet coming second ($30).
Henry of Pelham Unoaked Chardonnay 2015: Best results - Zalto Burgundy; runner-up Lucaris Desire ($12).
Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Private Selection 2014: Best results: Zalto Burgundy; runner-up Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir ($60).
Speck Family Cabernet Merlot Reserve 2012: Best results - Zalto Burgundy, runners-up, Zalto Bordeaux, Oberglas Passion (~ $12).
A final thought. Riedel, having spent a couple of decades convincing wine lovers to serve wines in stemware that respects the integrity of wines made in a variety of regions and styles. Then they came out with their ‘O’ series. They called these glasses, ‘the first varietal specific wine tumbler in history.’
It’s a collection of bowls without stems.
For years we wine lovers have been educated not to hold a glass by the bowl as this will warm up the wine as well as leaving greasy fingerprints on the crystal that impair our appreciation of colour. There is no way to hold this glass except by the bowl. But at least you won’t snap off any stems in the dishwasher.
And they do float in hot tubs.
So what do you do if you don’t want to have a cabinet filled with dozens of glasses that match each of the world’s wines? The most versatile glass I have found for white, red and sparkling is the Riedel Riesling/Zinfandel glass. That’s what I use.