The Magic of Glassware: All Smoke & Mirrors?

As a big fan of The Hosemaster of Wine, AKA Ron Washam, I had to laugh when I read his article written a while back called, “Riedel Me This”. As with all the satires featured on his website, it was treading dangerously close to the truth in places and therein lies the humor. (Course it wasn’t quite so funny when he was threatened to be sued by Riedel.) I was recently reminded of those nuggets of truth in his satirical piece when I was asked to provide a quote for a friend writing for The Australian following what sounded like a smoke and mirrors performance he attended by Max Riedel. My friend’s question:

"I’m not a wine writer, but I did a tasting of New World wines (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon etc.) in Riedel glasses, and I really felt that the varietal specific Riedel glasses made a world of difference. When I recounted my experience to a friend in Australia, he scoffed, implying that I was under the spell of Max Riedel, and that there wasn’t so much of a difference. As the expert, what do you think? Do Riedel varietal specific glasses make a difference, and, if so, how much"

My answer to him was, “It’s not entirely your imagination but it’s not entirely Riedel either. It’s no great secret that different sizes and shapes of wine glasses will change how aromas in wine are expressed and channeled to your nose and palate. And this alone can change your experience of a wine. But the recognition of this phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to Riedel glasses.”

To better understand how the “magic” works, let’s start by imagining a wine glass – any glass – stripped bare of its brand, the trappings of its luxury (e.g. fancy packaging) and its varietal and/or stylistic “name”. What’s left? For a start, it is a tool that allows us to drink wine from a vessel other than the bottle. This in itself heightens our experience of wine, regardless of the construction material. I have enjoyed many a fine bottle from “glasses” that were not even made of glass.
Then & Now: When I first started tasting wine professionally, the ISO glass was standard. These days, professionals tend to use considerably larger tasting glasses, though the shape is similar to the old ISOs.

The production of glass dates back to Mesopotamian times, though it was not used to make wine “cups” until much later, probably in England around 1700 A.D. Long history aside, up until relatively recently wine glass designs went through a very, very long era of style over substance. Think back to the purely superficial nature of the old “Champagne coupe” fabled to have been modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breast or more recently those Libbey smoke-tinged, tumbler-straight wine glasses of the 1970s that my elders would roll-out for special occasions. Following this, I suppose it was the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) glasses of my formative wine years that can be credited for kick-starting the movement to consider the finer functions of a wine “tasting” glass. But nowadays, the old work-horse ISO glass is considered passé amongst the wine cognoscenti, its size admittedly being far too small to reveal the subtler characters in wines, particularly when compared to the more generously endowed tulip shaped glasses of today. One thing is clear though: wine lovers are now more aware than ever before that the size, shape and transparency of wine glasses are important features, even if the precise effects of these attributes can get a little fuzzy.

The fuzziness of what exactly a wine glass lends to the whole drinking experience is certainly not helped by some of the outrageous claims made by manufacturers. I happened to stumble across the following bit of “information” on the Baccarat website:

“A Château Baccarat glass will tone down rich wines, refine robust wines, add spectacular clarity to understated wines, give unassuming wines a confidence boost, lend the wisdom of the years to young wines and restore youthfulness to aged wines.”

Claims like this, in my view, give legitimately excellent glassware a bad name and leave me reaching for my 2-year old’s sippy cup in protest.

When we move beyond the basic cup-for-sharing-grog concept and the fact that it is actually quite nice as well as informative to appreciate the wine’s color through the quaffing vessel, the tangible attributes of a wine glass mainly boil down to its size and shape. The size will impact the amount of air to which the wine is exposed when performing the (sometimes habitual) act of swirling. Swirling the glass to expose more of the wine to air is important for volatizing aromatic compounds and making them detectable by the human nose. So the bigger the glass, the more surface area and therefore the more air exposure. But bigger isn’t necessarily better and, as a cautionary note, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, in the case of very delicate / nuanced wines (including most white wines with the notable exception of bigger / bolder Chardonnays) and especially older wines wine of a fragile nature, an overly large wine glass bowl can rapidly dissipate aromas that would be better preserved in a smaller glass. Conversely, a big, youthful, concentrated wine might appear closed (without aromas) or like a seemingly simple fruit bomb in a glass too small, because it needs more air to volatize the nuances.
Very old wines are fragile and therefore usually show better in a wine glass with a smaller bowl to preserve the delicate aromas for as long as possible.

The shape of a wine glass can further help preserve, open-out and/or otherwise channel aromas and flavors, depending on the desired effect of the manufacturer if for anything other than aesthetics. And so, most modern wine glasses narrow at the lip (top), in order to preserve / collect and concentrate aromas, e.g. the classic tulip shaped glass. Another, recently fashionable, Pinot Noir specific design flares-out at the lip, resembling an hourglass with the top cut off. Manufacturers generally quote similar reasons for this hourglass design. Riedel says of its “Sommeliers Pinot Noir / Burgundy” wine glass:

“The Riedel Sommeliers Pinot Noir / Burgundy wine glass reveals the glory of top-class Burgundies and Pinot Noir wines. The large bowl allows the bouquet to develop to the fullest, while the slightly flared top lip maximizes the fruit flavors by directing the wine to the front palate which ensure the fruit is highlighted while keeping the acidity of the wine in balance.”

I’m not entirely convinced by this story. Granted, the unique shape does alter the user’s perception of the wine, but I’m not convinced that it does what it says or even gives the best experience of all Pinot Noirs / red Burgundies for me. I tend to prefer the simpler, broader bowled, tulip shape or even a kind of goldfish bowl shape for some Pinot Noirs, especially more youthful, tauter and perfumed ones, as this indeed helps to reveal subtler, tightly-wound characters. For older / mature Pinots or ones that tend to be open-for-business (e.g. Central Otago, NZ), I opt for a somewhat smaller bowl such as my standard “tasting glass” - about 5 inches high (without stem) and 4 inches wide at the widest part of the bowl, narrowing down to 2.75 inches’ diameter at the lip - which preserves the often fleeting perfume of the older wines just a little longer and shows off the bolder, open knit characters of some younger Pinot styles without overwhelming. The take-home here when choosing shape is that users should be aware of how and why the different shapes of glass will offer you different perceptions of your wine. But your ideal experience may differ from the manufacturer’s suggestion and finding your sweet-spot glass may take a bit of experimenting on your part. So while the manufacturer’s advice on matching glass to variety or type is helpful, this might not be what’s best for your palate.  

Another important consideration when deciding on your perfect stemware is: Do you need a stem? In my view, not really. While in a practical sense, if you can train yourself to hold your glass strictly by the stem, it keeps your glass from warming-up in your hands and you from getting your sticky prints all over the bowl. But apart from these minor attributes, the stem is largely just for show. And I have to hand it to the makers of well-designed stemless glassware, the liberating effects of top quality stemless glasses has been godsend for parents and pet lovers.
When studying or judging a group of wines, it is essential that you level the playing field by tasting all the wines using the same glass type.

A last key feature to consider when choosing the most righteous wine glass for you is the thinness of the glass. When I first started drinking wine in my early twenties, I was drinking out of Mexican glasses that were at least a quarter of an inch thick; you couldn’t break them if you tried. Now I cherish my wafer-thin Zaltos. Unfortunately, Thin = Pricey. Really thin glass stemware is more labor intensive to produce by its very delicate nature, usually being hand blown. Plus, not only does it cost you a lot more to buy thinner glass but be prepared for more breakages. Why bother? Well, that’s a bit like asking a photographer why they prefer their Leica camera to a Canon. Thin glassed glasses are just really, really nice. To be totally honest, the thinness of the glass won’t make the wine smell or taste any better, but it does enhance the overall experience of wine drinking.

A final variable worth mentioning in order to make the most of your chosen glass is the amount of wine in the glass relative to its size. Ideally what you want is a just a small amount of wine (i.e. fill it to just about a quarter of its height) to enable swirling and ample headspace in which the aromas can collect. Pouring more or less wine in the glass will probably rob you of making the most of the wine’s aromatic profile, which is crucial because, let’s face it, most of what you taste is what you smell.

So, is the magic of wine glassware purported by Riedel, Baccarat and others all a load of smoke and mirrors? Not all of it, no. Credit where it’s due, Riedel was one of the first to make the most of varietal / wine style specific glasses, but nowadays there are a lot of great wine glass manufacturers to choose from as well as a multitude of valid designs. Ultimately, what this discussion boils down to for consumers is that the size and shape of a wine glass can be used to enhance your experience of a wine and the decision as to which manufacturer or design to buy comes down to personal choice (and, er, budget). Note that if you want to experience all your wines on equal footing all the time, then you should pick one good general-use glass type and stick with it. I did this when I was studying for my Master of Wine qualification and continue to do so when judging wine professionally. But we can’t all be wine critics all of the time, so matching glassware types to specific wines can spice-up your wine drinking experiences. Bottom line: if you love what a particular glass does for a particular wine, it’s the right glass for you.

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