The proof is in the tasting

How a wine glass can make your wine taste better

Story by Sarah Gonzales

When Johan Cristoph Riedel started his glassmaking company 300 years ago, he couldn’t have imagined that 11 generations later his name would be recognized worldwide. About 60 years ago, one of his descendents, Kl6us Riedel, introduced the revolutionary idea that the shape of the glass could affect the taste of the wine. It’s a ubiquitous concept now, especially in fine dining establishments: Red wine comes in larger, rounder glasses while white wine is served in smaller, narrower glasses. But wine glassware is getting even more specific than merely red and white.

What’s in a glass? Everything, says Georg Riedel, the company’s current CEO. With the right shaped glass, he says, wine comes alive.

“Wine is emotional,” he adds.

Riedel delivered these romantic musings to a room full of wine enthusiasts, myself included, at a recent seminar held in Anchorage. During the course of the hour-long interactive presentation, Riedel gleefully demonstrated the profound effect that glassware’s particular shape and size can have on the bouquet, texture, flavor and finish of wine.

Georg RiedelRiedel believes that a wine drinker will respond in different ways to wine. He calls this experience emotion. It’s simple, really: Do you fall in love with the wine or are you ambivalent towards what’s in your glass? “We drink wine for our pleasure, and pleasure has to do with emotions. I like to blend emotions with scientific fact,” says the glassmaker. The science part comes in when we start to experiment with that pleasurable liquid, trying it from this glass and that one, to discover the best emotion, and the very best taste.

At the tasting (which was more like 10th-grade chemistry lab… plus wine, minus safety goggles) three oversized glasses sat in front of each participant, each one made to hold a different red wine. There was a snifter-shaped glass with fluted rim meant for pinot noir (or bubbly is great in it, too, we learn); a narrow-mouthed, football-shaped glass made for enjoying syrah or meritage blends; and at last, a giant, deep well of a glass that could fit an entire bottle, but is intended for just a single of pour of hearty cabernet sauvignon.

I was skeptical that there’d be that much of a discernable difference in the taste of the wine from glass to glass, but as Riedel’s tasting/lab wore on I was slowly converted to this specific-glass for specific-grape idea – it really did taste different. We tasted pinot noir in the “wrong” glass (the giant cab) to really drive this point home. “Once you swallow, there is no fruit. The wine is sour. The wine has lost its excitement. The wine is lean; one dimensional. Am I right or wrong?” says Riedel, as he ticks off its faults, then continues without pausing for an answer. “I’m right. I’m definitely right.” He was indeed; it was terrible.

The larger, more cavernous, cabernet glass will bury a delicate pinot noir. A good cabernet glass is designed to flood the palate with bold, deep, intense flavors, while the fluted-edge pinot noir glass delivers the more fragile fruit to the right spot on the palate where they are best savored. An ideal syrah glass will balance the alcohol with the cassis, cherry and tannins generally expressed in this varietal.

Oenophiles at home can conduct their own experimentation. Invite a handful of friends, lay out sheets of paper for notes and get down to tasting in whatever glasses you already own. “Use different glasses in your household,” says Riedel. “Pour the same wine into each of these glasses and discover what kind of effect the shape and size of the glass has on your emotions and you will discover that you will clearly have a favorite.”

For more wine glass experimentation, I visit with Jose Martignon, general manager of Sacks Café, who says that wine glasses aren’t always about form following function – beautiful stemware helps to set a mood, too. Take a night of dining out: “The finer the silverware and the finer the plating, (the more) you will enjoy your experience,” he explains. “Perception is very important.” He lines up a series of red, white and sparkling wine glasses on the bar – these are crystal, thin rimmed and elegantly tapered at the top. Then a second flight of red, white and sparkling – these are made of glass, they’re untapered “flat-top glasses” with a chunky rim.

“You see?” he says, flicking each one with his fingernail. The older, flat-top style glasses sound dull and look ordinary (no emotion there), not to mention they are smaller, making swirling precarious and sniffing any accumulated aroma impossible. The tapered, crystal glasses sustain a high hum and they just look better. Now, knowing that beautiful wine glasses also can make a wine taste better, it seems that function and form go hand in hand. That is to say, it’s possible for the wine drinkers’ emotions and their intellectual side to be simultaneously satisfied in a single glass.

Resources: Riedel.com; WineGlassGuide.com; SacksCafe.com