Just how important is the size and shape of your wine glass – and how many do you really need? Margaret Rand takes a look
Why would you buy a decent bottle of wine and then serve it in a glass that doesn’t flatter it? Unless you’re drinking wine purely to get drunk (and vodka is quicker for that) then presumably you care about the flavour of what you’re drinking. You wouldn’t spend all day preparing a special meal and then serve it in a dog bowl, would you? And with wine, the difference is not just visual. Good wine served in a tooth glass might look cool, but it won’t taste good: the aroma will dissipate, the acidity and tannins will dominate the flavour, and you’ll have wasted your money. Good glasses make wine taste and smell better.
Why should the wine glass matter?
Most people, however, have to be convinced that their wine glass matters at all. Logically, why should it? The job of a glass is to keep the wine in one place while it travels from bottle to mouth. After that, your mouth does all the work of tasting and assessing. The glass is merely a vehicle. Isn’t it?
Riedel, an Austrian glass company that invented the concept of high-quality wine-specific glasses, came up against this attitude when it launched its Vinum (machine-made) and Sommelier (mouthblown) ranges some decades ago. There was a certain amount of mirth at the idea that chardonnay for example might need a glass that was different to a standard white wine glass; that vintage Champagne might need a glass larger and broader than non-vintage. It looked like a clever marketing gimmick. But when you tasted the same wine from different Riedel glasses, you understood how the size and shape of the bowl influence what you taste – for good or ill.
It’s all about aroma
There is science to this, of course, but it’s very simple. Wine is about aroma, so the more generous the glass, the more space the aroma has to develop. It’s like sound bouncing around in an echo chamber. Think of the difference between drinking a gorgeous fino sherry out of one of those thimble-sized “schooners”, and swirling it around in a fine big glass.
Unfortunately, as with everything to do with wine, there’s a lot of pseudo-science as well. The premium glassmaker Zalto talks about how the earth’s angles of tilt are the same as the angles of its glasses, and say the ancient Romans used the same angles when designing amphorae, but when asked for evidence admit there isn’t any. Riedel’s idea that the bowl can, by its size and shape, deliver the wine to specific tastebud areas on the tongue and thus affect how you taste the wine, would be a nice one if it wasn’t for the fact that all tastebuds on all parts of the tongue detect all flavours. The idea that different parts of the tongue taste different flavours is false.
There’s even a glass for saperavi…
The Riedel range is bewildering. You have to decide whether you want the Sommelier range (mouthblown, thin and fine, with different bowl shapes for riesling grand cru and for Rheingau), Vinum (machine-made, and the Burgundy glass here is a different shape from that in other ranges), Vinum Extra Large (the ‘new generation of Riedel glasses’, according to the website) Veritas (thin but machine-made, with different bowl shapes for old world syrah and new world shiraz), or the more angular Vitis, Heart to Heart or Vinum Extreme, where the shapes are a nod to the Zalto shape. There are three different pinot noir shapes: Old World, New World and Central Otago, the last (it’s the wine region on the South Island of New Zealand) being for the catering industry. There is even a specific glass for saperavi, a grape variety native to Georgia.
Bearing in mind that there’s a lot of cleverly targeted marketing here, and that the identities of the glasses can shift over time, you may well conclude that you’re better off simplifying your life.
But it is perfectly logical to accept that a bigger wine (a zinfandel, or a shiraz say) demands a bigger glass – and a fresher white like a German riesling will need something smaller to avoid the delicate aromas getting lost.
It’s enough to drive you to despair
The trouble is, once you accept that you should choose your glasses to suit your wines, you could find yourself needing seven or eight different glasses, multiplied by however many guests you have. Whether you choose machine-made or handmade is a question of budget, but the varying permutations of which glasses are recommended for which wines, and the different sizes and bowl shapes, are enough to drive one to despair.
So a lot of people just opt for one or two glasses for everything. If you want to take your glasses seriously, but not too seriously, this is what you should look for:
- A big glass. Anything small will cramp the aroma, making wine smell and taste mean. A big bowl amplifies aroma.
- But not too big: huge glasses look ostentatious, and light wines get lost in them.
- A cut rim, not a rolled rim. It just feels better.
- The height of the bowl is as important as its width: short bowls (the round, Paris goblet shape) are ugly, and it’s impossible to swirl the wine
- The bowl must be tulip-shaped. If the bowl flares outwards from stem to rim, the aroma evaporated, and again, you can’t swirl the wine
- Check the height. Riedel’s Superleggero Burgundy Grand Cru glass is 4cm taller than Spiegelau’s Authentis red wine. Will they fit in your dishwasher? And on your shelves?
- You don’t need separate glasses for Champagne. Nobody in Champagne uses flutes any more. Ditto Port or Sherry glasses.
- The feel of the glass also matters: the thinner and lighter the better (see Zalto, below)
(all prices approximate)
Dartington red wine glass: a good everyday glass for the kitchen cupboard (£32/six)
Schott Zwiesel Invento Burgundy. Cheap, light and attractive. A good dinner-party glass. Look also at its Vina range: good shapes, and the Burgundy and Bordeaux glasses are the sort of thing one wants (£31/six)
Spiegelau Authentis Red Wine: my all-purpose glass, very good for everything from fino Sherry to Champagne to Port. Good for everyday and for dinner parties. Spiegelau’s Grand Palais Exquisit is a bit more refined. (£25/six)
Riedel Veritas Sauvignon Blanc: an excellent all-round white-wine glass, but a bit small for most reds. (£44 each)
Riedel Veritas Syrah: Has a big bowl and is recommended by sommeliers as an all-purpose glass. Again, a great dinner-party glass. (£44 each)
Zalto Universal: a lovely glass, a good size for both whites and reds. It brings out precision and tension in wines, which I like. But it’s fragile. The favourite of sommeliers and wine enthusiasts. So light it floats in the hand. Keep this for when you want to show off. (£30 each)