Size and Shape Matter (Choosing a Wine Glass)

While I am sure this will come as a complete shock to my readers (all of whom are clearly well-rounded and sophisticated individuals), there are a large number of folks out there who think that all wines are alike and differences between wines are irrelevant and purely fictional (gasp). These are probably the same folk who think that “their four-year old kid could have painted that” Jackson Pollack painting and see no value in it – in other words – Philistines….

Now while some of you may be surprised at this fact, I am sure that some of you feel the same way about the glass in which you imbibe the nectar of the gods – that there isn’t really a difference and all the razzle-dazzle around which glass you drink with which wine, crystal versus glass, stem versus stemless and the like arguments are a bunch of bularky meant for some self-important wine snobs whose heads are stuck where the sun don’t shine and have forgotten how to actually enjoy the wine they are drinking. Now, while this may surprise some of you, I am somewhat in agreement with that school of thought. While I congratulate Claus Josef Riedel for convincing millions of folks out there that Riesling just doesn’t taste like Riesling unless you are drinking it out of a specially made, hand-blown, lead-crystal Riesling glass – that is a load of crap (but hey – kudus on the marketing technique Claus; Google could learn from you). Without getting into why lead-crystal wine-glasses are perfectly safe, I should mention that a theory holds that the Roman empire feel because of excessive use of lead in their eating/cooking utensils and one should be wary of using lead-crystal decanters to Store scotch, Port of sherry for more that a few days.

That said, while I don’t think that there is an actual need for the more than 100 different shaped wine glasses that Riedel has produced for a seemingly endless list of different types of wine (list a few), that doesn’t mean that I think you get the same wine experience drinking wine from a plastic cup that you do from a Riedel Sommeliers Burgundy Grand Cru 37 ounce $105 glass which was is on permanent display in New York’s MOMA (with all due respect to the moans of pleasure evoked by Miles and his 1961 Cheval Blanc out of a local diner’s white Styrofoam cup). I firmly believe that, in order to appreciate wine to the fullest, having the right glass and understanding what makes it the right glass, is an important part of the experience. Different types of glasses emit different tastes and can affect the aroma of the wine it contains. The wrong type of glass may even have an adverse effect on the taste of the finest wine, which is why I advocate getting a custom-made crystal liner for your favorite or special Kiddush cup.

There are a number of ways in which having the proper wine glass can significantly enhance your wine-tasting/drinking experience and, in this week’s newsletter, I am going to give a little background and information on wineglasses in general, provide some tips and guidelines for figuring out what the “proper wineglass” and explaining some of the myriad of ways such a glass can impact your onephellic experience and if you find yourself muttering “yeah, yeah” under your breath I suggest you skip t the “Taste test” below and prove yourself wrong without delay. In keeping with this newsletter’s main philosophy, the ‘proper” wine glass we are taking about is that wine glass that is proper for you! For a short but interesting history of wine glasses check out the link at: http://hubpages.com/hub/Wine-Glasses—A-History.

Most wine glasses are stemware and red-wine glasses are shaped, more or less, like a tulip with a wide bowl and narrower mouth – this to allow a glass to contain a goo amount of wine that can be swirled without making a mess with a narrower opening to concentrate the aromas and deliver them directly to your nose. While Riedel does make a stem-less crystal wine glass – the “O” series, I am a pretty big believer in the importance of stemware. While the common theory that the main reason for the stem is to prevent ones body heat from altering the temperature of the glass is pretty close to nonsense as only the temperature of the air surrounding the wine inside the glass really affects the wine’s temperature (the changes are never going to be that dramatic in the relevant timeframe even though brandy glasses are shaped exactly for that purpose; this is because brandy is much more susceptible than most wines to body heat which is required to bring out some of its delicate aromas), some of the ways that stems increase and enhance the wine-drinking experience are in the areas of reasons that include aesthetics (a clear stemmed glass allows one to fully view and enjoy the wine’s color, viscosity and rim without fingerprints messing up the view), aromas (having a stem enables easier and more vigorous swirling which, as we know, enables the multitude of aromas locked in a wine to escape for our enjoyment) and staying out of prison (I heard from an acquaintance that the police love stemless glasses because it’s impossible to get whole or court-recognized fingerprints from stemmed glasses).

HOW TO CHOOSE A PROPER WINE GLASS

Choosing wine glasses can be both fun and easy with a little advance preparation and knowledge. While the shape of the glass makes a difference as I will describe below, the aspect of the wine glass that provides the most impact on the quality of the wine experience is the quality of the glass. Ideally a wine glass should be made out of crystal that is thin and delicate. A glass made of fused or cut glass will interfere with the taste of the wine and produce a think and uncomfortable lip to the glass. An easy and quick way to ascertain whether a wine glass is of good quality is the “clink test”. When toasting, the sound of the glasses should be a “clink”, not a “clunk”. If a clunk is heard the bowl is too thick or you picked up juice glasses from Wal-Mart.

While hundreds of different shapes are preposterous, there are a few basic shapes for different wines that make a lot of sense. As an extremely general rule, Red wines with bigger bouquets, are best drunk from glasses with large (I suggest 18-25 ounces which allows for enough wine to be poured for normal consumption while still allowing for the required swirling – the proper amount to fill a wine glass is between a third to a half of the glass (closer to a third)), broad and slightly elongated bowls while wine glasses with narrower bowls are more suited for white wines as they serve to better concentrate the more delicate aromas of such wines. For champagne and other sparkling wines, there is the glass known as a champagne flute, which is tall, thin and also shaped like a tulip. Visual enjoyment of the bubbles that differentiate a sparkling wine from a still wine is enhanced by the height of the glass as the bubble have further to travel and tantalize the eyes. The once popular shorter version of the Champagne glass — whose design was reputed to be based on an particular aspect of Marie Antoinette’s anatomy — is too likely to spill and doesn’t present the rising bubbles to best advantage or prolong the necessary chill like a tall thin glass will. These three basic types of glasses will suffice for all but a minute number of wine drinkers.

If your budget, available cabinet space or desire for simplicity limit your choices to one single glass instead of choosing an all purpose glass, I would go with a medium sized red wine glass that will be large enough to allow you to properly enjoy your red wines without overwhelming the white wines you enjoy. Personally I have two wine glasses I use on a regular basis and a two Riedel glasses that I use when drinking really special stuff alone (I received four as a (magnificent) gift – two have survived my three children so far). My regular wine glasses are Luigi Bormioli Crescendo 20 ounce Bordeaux ($30 for four on Amazon) and I also have a bunch of Riedel’s Vinum Bordeaux 21.5 ounce glasses (about $150 for eight on Amazon) that I use when I have wine lovers (without children) over. Schott Zwiesel and Spiegel also make great stuff that is affordable.

One last tip is with respect to washing you fine crystal – obviously do not put it in the dishwasher. Further, as detergents typically leave a slight film of residue on glassware, I suggest always washing your good crystal by hand using only baking soda or washing soda – neither leaves residue and both are found on any supermarket in the cleaning sections.

THE “TASTING IS BELIEVING TEST”
(otherwise known as the “I Am a Horrific Skeptic Test”)

Note: I have listed a bunch of different glasses for comparison; not all are required for the test.

Part I – the Beginner’s Test

1. Pick a nice, young, bold red or white wine – preferably a highly aromatic one (like Yarden’s Odem organic Chardonnay, Galil Mountain’s Viognier or Ella Valley’s Vineyard Choice Merlot 2003).

2. Pour the same amount of the wine into (a) a plastic cup, (b) a silver Kiddush cup; (c) a thick water glass; (d) a beer glass, (e) a cheap wine glass from Target, Crate and Barrel or the like (as long as the bowl and rim are relatively thick); and (f) a fine crystal glass.

3. One-by-one, give each glass a vigorous swirl, take a good deep sniff and then actually taste the wine. You will be blown away by the differences.

Part II – the Oenophile’s Test

1. Select one varietal wine (try a Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier or Zinfandel).

2. Pour the wine of choice into three glasses of equal quality but different shapes (e.g. a Riesling, Burgundy and Chablis Riedel glasses). Try to select the glass recommended by the company for that variety and two others, those recommended for other varieties.

3. As above, one-by-one, give each glass a vigorous swirl, get a good whiff and taste the wine. There will still be abundant differences (although less profound than in the beginner’s test above).