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What's in a glass?


Felicity Cloak

What does wine taste like? Depends what type of glass you drink it out of...apparently.

What does wine taste like? Depends what type of glass you drink it out of...apparently.

It doesn’t seem long ago that owning wine glasses was enough to mark one out as a sophisticate, but while I was smashing my way through boxes of Ikea stemware, the rules changed: now we are buying different glasses for different styles of wines.

Matching glassware to wine is not new - Raymond Postgate’s 1951 Plain Man’s Guide to Wine dismisses traditional glass shapes for sherry, claret, port, champagne and hock, denouncing sherry glasses as ‘‘an inn-keepers’ trick, [for making] the quantity of wine look much more than it is’’.

Postgate says one glass will do: "It is colourless, rather tulip-shaped, and the upper rim of the cup narrows."

Champagne - might actually be best drunk out of a white wine glass rather than a flute...

Champagne - might actually be best drunk out of a white wine glass rather than a flute...

While Postgate was bemoaning fancy glassware, in Austria, ninth-generation glassmaker Claus Riedel was theorising about the effect on wine of the glass’s shape.

The company launched a range of grape-specific glasses in 1961, claiming:

"Wide, open glass shapes require us to sip by lowering the head, whereas a narrow rim forces the head to tilt backwards so that the liquid flows. This delivers and positions the beverage to different 'taste zones' of the palate."

Such specific zones are now known to be an oversimplification and I am not convinced about them, but I have come to test the theory out with style-specific wine glasses for different weights of whites and reds.

Wine expert Will Parker admits he shared my scepticism, but thinks he can change my mind.

Certainly at the UK department store John Lewis customers seem to be convinced: the store’s range, launched last year at $47 for four glasses, has been flying off the shelves, with a sales peak this month.

We try out the large white glass.

The effect on an Australian chardonnay is startling - out of the standard glass, it is dull and heavy, reminiscent of a hundred pub pours; the tailored glass spreads it evenly around my mouth, bringing out far more exciting flavours of pineapple, smoke, even minerality.

Riedel’s glasses remain covetable among wine lovers (although starting at $101, they are not a casual proposition) - the Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker has described the difference they can make as "profound", while Victoria Moore says in her book How to Drink that buying an expensive bottle of wine without decent glasses "would be like buying a state-of-the-art sound system and fitting it to cheap speakers".

But not everyone is convinced. The Oxford Companion to Wine’s Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson acknowledge subtle differences made by glassware but maintain such things are for "purists".

Even champagne flutes, the most mainstream of the specialist glasses, are of debated worth.

Richard Geoffroy, Dom Perignon’s chef de cave, swears by white wine glasses for serving champagne, because flutes, while concentrating the fizz, can also stifle older, more complex wines.

"You taste the way you see," he says.

"A narrow flute will narrow the taste, an ample wine glass will amplify the taste, a flat saucer will flatten the taste."

Whatever you are drinking out of, the most important thing is to ensure it is clean,  stemmed, to keep the wine at a constant temperature and ideally, tulip-shaped to concentrate the aromas.

The right glassware can’t make a bad wine good, but it can make a good wine more enjoyable - if you can avoid knocking them over, of course.

Which is a talent I fondly hope to acquire with age.

- the Guardian

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7 comments so far

  • I've spent my fair share of time (5 months) kicking around the vineyards of France picking grapes and drinking wine, actually I enjoy wine..just not from a wine glass. Sit down in any grape growers/wine makers cellar in France and you'll be drinking from the glasses not unlike you find in your standard cheap hotel. I must admit I found this intriguing at first and never understood, surely wine is supposed to be drunk from wine glasses?
    In the end I think it might be something to do with the French resistance and anything bourgeois. In saying that my wine tastes better from the aforementioned glass, practical (they don't break as easily unless thrown at something), no pretension and if it's good enough for the Frenchy's it's good enough for me. escape the bourgeois bubble Sydney and keep it real..oops now I've given away the next "quirky" thing to appear in another of Sydney's over-priced, themed (complete with tattoos, fedoras and scarves) hipster small bars.

    Date and time
    May 01, 2012, 12:43PM
    • ISO-XL5 = buy a set and throw out all those stupid fiddly glasses immediately. Aesthetically pleasing tulip shape with scent funnelling , bubble trapping, leg observing, swishy swirly capacity. Can't understand why people persist with all these other useless glasses.

      Date and time
      May 01, 2012, 1:34PM
      • Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.

        Miles: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f%&^ing Merlot!

        Date and time
        May 01, 2012, 2:12PM
        • I definitely think the shape of the glass can change the tasting experience for wine. Trying to drink a full-bodied red wine from a small pub wine glass really stifles the flavours.
          However I think that the idea of having a wine glass for every grape variety as is available from Riedel and other makes is a pure marketing ploy. It is only really necessary to have a glass for sparkling wine, a white wine glass and a red wine glass; this article suggests only the latter two are necessary I will have to see for myself.

          Central Coast
          Date and time
          May 01, 2012, 3:12PM
          • I'm totally on board with the separate wine glasses thing. Went to a masterclass with one of these glassmakers (won't go all brand naming lest I be accused of being on the payroll) once and we tried 4 different wines out of a "standard" glass and then theirs. Also compared drinking the wines in the "wrong" glass from their own range. In all cases the wine seemed best out of the specifically designed glass.

            Biggest differences on the night were chardonnay and pinot noir. The proper glass for chardonnay softened the oak and made the fruit come through and balanced thew wine out.

            I went in sceptical too but was convinced by the taste. Since then I've not always had enough money for a full range to these things (starting out with one of each for a long time), so have had the chance to compare glasses regularly, and I still think there's a positive difference in going to the specific glass.

            At home I've noticed reisling tastes better out of their reisling glass too.

            Date and time
            May 01, 2012, 5:45PM
            • I agree Winefan. Those who haven't tried it, or been to a wine tasting of various wine varietals with the ability to taste one glass against another do not know the difference.
              Its not snobbery or anything like that, its logical. One thing the article doesnt mention is not only the glass position the wine in the palette, but also allowing for vapors from the wine to be released, where you smell them better. Each wine releases a scent differently, and as smell can make up for 65% of flavour, i fail to see how people cannot make this distinction.
              I have been lucky enough to attend a wine tasting where we were given a Riedel set, and although it was only 4 glasses, i much prefer drinking my wine from them.
              I will still drink wine in any glass when i am out and about, but when i am at home, why should i not enjoy it to the best i can?

              Date and time
              May 02, 2012, 10:39AM
              • I sell booze for a living & can confidently say that when I'm drinking the wines I can afford (inexpensive) at home it's served in a decent glass such as Riedel. The varietal/style specific glasses referred to here do make an amazing difference, especially to inexpensive or unremarkable wines. My suggestion to my fellow readers is, invest in a pair of glasses for one your most favourite red or white varietal then take things from there based on your own experience.

                Date and time
                May 04, 2012, 9:48PM

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