Whether you are a casual wine drinker who occasionally picks up a bottle at the grocery store to enjoy on a Friday night, or a die-hard collector, choosing your dinner wine from among hundreds of carefully cataloged, artfully cellared trophies, you both share this in common: You darn well want to enjoy that bottle!
And sad to say, there is one common mistake that almost guarantees you will miss some of the flavor highlights in any given bottle. I’ve seen it happen over and over — a generous host pulls out a “special” wine to share, and pours it into a glass that hides the aromas, dulls the fruit and deadens the finish. Yes, believe it or not, the wineglass in large measure defines the scents and flavors of the wine you are tasting.
Some 30 years ago, I attended a special event in Seattle hosted by a representative from Riedel, a maker of fine stemware. The purpose of the tasting was to convince a group of highly skeptical members of the wine trade (myself included) that there should be a special glass for every type of wine, and further, that we could clearly taste the difference when the right glass was used.
Riedel convinced me and pretty much everyone else that we all needed a different style of glass for every single type of wine. For a number of years, I set about collecting such stemware, believing that to make the best decisions about the wines I was reviewing, I owed it to the winemakers to taste their product from the best possible stem. Never mind that only rarely (at that time) did any winery have a clue about finding the right stemware. Most tasting rooms were more worried about glasses being dishwasher safe than how they would broadcast their wine.
I say “broadcast” because in a real sense, that is what wineglasses do. Just as any audiophile knows that the exact same song sounds different through every speaker, the same wine poured into a variety of glasses will vary, sometimes significantly, in aroma and flavor.
You can prove this for yourself, and it’s actually a lot of fun. Pick any wine you like for the experiment, and let it warm to near room temperature (about 65 degrees). Then assemble a group of half a dozen different glasses. They need not be expensive, but if you can find at least one that is, go ahead and include it, along with whatever else you have — a water glass, a tumbler, some mixed cheapos from the Goodwill; it doesn’t matter.
Pour two or three ounces of the same wine into each glass and give them all a swirl. Then stick your nose into them all, one by one. They will all be different.
Taste them one at a time, allowing for the flavors to develop fully in your mouth, and waiting for them to completely fade before moving on to the next glass. Again, they will all be different.
What this should prove is that the glass matters. It most certainly does not mean that you need a special glass for every single wine. In fact, the trends in stemware have gone away from that idea, with some manufacturers (Zalto is one) promoting “universal” wineglasses supposedly good for everything. My own experiments, which have continued nonstop over the decades, have led me to favor a few specific designs, each of which works for a broad group of styles. For dry white wines and rosés, I choose an inexpensive ‘Rona’ glass made in Slovakia. For Pinot Noir and lighter reds, I love my (fairly costly) Gabriel Glas stems from Austria. For Cabernets and bigger red wines, I’ve tried everything from $4 Costco glasses to Spiegelau to Riedel, and recently settled on a striking new glass from Zenology.
But as new stems appear, the search continues, and I’ve concluded that it’s the search as much as the results that matters. Once I’ve settled on a certain glass, I will continue to test it against others from time to time.
Stemware, as with everything else in the wine world, is driven both by fashion and by technology. Relatively inexpensive, unleaded, dishwasher-safe wineglasses made today are as good or better than yesterday’s Riedels. But you have to look for them, and test them out against your own palate and drinking preferences.
You can spend as little as $5 or $6 a stem and find something pretty good. For me, $30 gets as good a glass as I will ever need. The $75 stems I was gifted some years back are too precious and too fragile to come out of the cupboard, except on state occasions, and then, strictly for show.
You need not spend a lot, but consider this: If you are pouring a $20 or $30 or $60 wine in a randomly chosen, cheap wineglass, odds are you are not really tasting all that the wine has to offer. Find the right glass, and every wine will be just that much better.