What’s in a glass?
Do you have to pay through the nose to enhance the nose? Kate Williams decides that size (and shape) matters
A glass for every wine is the new mantra at Riedel, which invented the “functional wineglass.” Here a Bordeaux glass is poured at Chateau St. Jean.
Wine: open it, pour it, drink it, no?
Perhaps, for the cave dwellers among us, taking the juice is as simple as that. But for the sophisticate, there is big science. Undertaking much wine-besotted study in the name of sybaritic intellectualism, yours truly is prepared to empirically avow that the ambrosial satisfaction of a particular varietal is tantamount to the relationship between the price of its vessel and vessel shape. Or: To fully appreciate the characteristics of a certain grape, you must quaff from a peculiarly shaped and therefore invariably pricey glass. Which explains the phenomenon we’ve come to know as Riedel. Are students in the back row paying attention?
Long gone are the days of thick-lipped workaday wineglasses. Today a real connoisseur boasts a vessel of containment for every type of wine served. With creative blends and hybrid varietals multiplying exponentially, a blue-blooded wine snob might require a roomy kitchen addition just to shelve the necessary spectrum of stemware.
The minute wine is poured, it begins to evaporate, generating aroma. Fragile scents, like flower and fruit, rise to the rim. In the middle are green notes of earth and vegetal. The heaviest aromas, like wood and smoke and alcohol, remain at the bottom. A vigorous swirl across an expanse of crystal increases evaporation and intensifies aroma. Big reds require more real estate, as they’re often infused with the lower notes of bouquet. Sweeter, fruitier whites need less, as fragrance rises even as they are poured. Each specialized shape of modern wineglass science is designed to target precise taste zones on the tongue. The wide-open rim and bulbous chasm of a classic Burgundy glass requires we lower our heads to sip, while the narrow lip of a chardonnay glass forces the head back. This positioning accesses different taste receptors, engaging the exact taste buds best suited to distinguish the qualities of a particular varietal. And still, the tongue needs the nose: Together, olfaction plus taste equals flavor, equals (if you’ve got a good vintage) heaven.
Legendary super palate Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate promises, “The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.” So, can a fancy bit of stemware turn my Two-Buck Chuck Shiraz into a Sea Smoke Pinot Noir? Sorry, kids. The science of shape enhances the chemistry already contained within a given bottle; it can’t vindicate vinegar.
In the future, size and shape will matter more. A company called Eisch Glaskultur holds a patent on what it calls “breathable glass.” This innovation allows wine poured straight from the bottle to take on the complexities of a properly decanted and oxygenated wine. Made from a special “raw material mixture” in lead-free crystal, the glasses undergo a mysterious “oxygenation treatment” that allows their finished surfaces to somehow breathe, elevating the wine’s aroma and taste to optimum levels in fewer than five minutes. In the go-go world of the contemporary gourmand, that’s a promise that bears investigating. It’s a tough job, but I’m willing.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA