The Glass Matters

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On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I joined some good friends at their home for dinner, wine and conversation. I took a couple of bottles of wine, of course, but I also took my own wine glasses large, Bordeaux-style affairs tucked safely in a nice zippered carrying case specifically designed for such things. When I opened the case in their kitchen, the look on our friends faces was a mix of amusement and incomprehension. Our wine glasses arent good enough for you? they asked. Thankfully, they are such close friends that I could answer honestly: For the wine were having tonight, no.

Youre probably thinking that carrying my own wine glasses around town is wine-snobbish and obsessive, but I have a good excuse: the shape of the glass really does make a difference in how a wine smells and tastes. Without benefit of a photo, its a little hard to describe an appropriately-shaped wine glass, but in general terms it is thus: for reds: tall, narrow and tapered; for whites: tall, wide and tapered. Both should have a large bowl allowing you to swirl the wine and mix a little air into it; as well as a razor-thin rim the less glass between the wine and your palate, the better. Why does the shape matter? Technically speaking, I cant really say.

But from a purely sensory point of view, I can tell you that an appropriately shaped glass focuses a wines aromas and delivers the liquid onto the palate in a way that maximizes flavors and complexity.

I havent always believed this, mind you. There was a time when I would drink wine from any available glass, whether heavy wedding crystal or a jelly jar. My change of heart occurred when I attended a wine tasting a number of years ago hosted by a guy who served the wines in tall, glimmering Riedel glasses. For those of you who arent familiar with the name, Riedel is an Austrian glassware manufacturer that makes fine, varietal-specific wine glasses. They have glasses designed specifically for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and so forth, in a seemingly endless variety. On this particular evening, the host conducted a blind tasting of about eight Cabernets using Riedel Bordeaux/Cabernet glasses. It was a revelation.

From that moment on, I was determined to drink wine only from appropriately shaped glasses. Translating that reasoned intention into practical reality, though, wasnt a simple matter. I sure liked the Riedel glasses, but there were two nagging obstacles. First, Riedel glasses are expensive, at that time costing anywhere from $30 to $100 a stem. Not really feasible for everyday use. Second, theyre extremely fragile. Light, very thin glass is essential to the design, but it can break with the flick of a finger. Unfortunately, when it comes to handling wine glasses Im a real klutz. I break wine glasses all the time, while washing them; drying them; drinking from them (I once lacerated my wrist with a fragment from a broken wine glass accidentally, of course and spent much of the evening in the emergency room). Recognizing that high cost + fragility = inevitable disaster, I concluded that Riedel just wasnt the right glass for me.

It didnt take long, however, to discover a functional and affordable alternative. While moseying around in a great china and glass outlet store with my wife in Reading, Pa., I spotted a wine glass that was the same size and shape as the Riedel but which cost a fraction of the price around $9 a stem. I bought several boxes of the Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon glass (which serves as a versatile red wine glass) and the Burgundy/Chardonnay glass (which serves as a versatile white wine and Pinot Noir glass). Since then Ive broken many and had to buy replacements (fairly painless at this price), but these are still the glasses I use (and carry around) everyday. As it turns out, the glasses are made by Spiegelau, an old German glass manufacturer that get this was purchased by Riedel in 2004. In my search for the perfect wine glass, I unwittingly found my way back to Riedel, after all.

I encourage you to test my assertion that wine tastes better in an appropriately shaped glass. These days its not really that hard to do, since the world of wine has come to embrace the concept and such glasses are increasingly popular. Riedel, still the standard-bearer, has diversified, introducing several different glassware lines that are more affordable and accessible. This includes not only my favored Spiegelau, but also a line of stemless (but still appropriately-shaped) glasses that sell for $25 a pair. Even Target sells some Riedel glasses, which attests to the companys marketing savvy. Many other stores also have begun to sell wine glasses under a variety of brands at reasonable prices that approximate the size and shape of Riedel glasses. World Market, for instance, sells a line of glasses, under their store brand, which I believe are made by Spiegelau and cost only $7 each.

If you want to see examples of these and similar wine glasses, take a look at some of the websites that offer them, including www.wineenthusiast.com, www.beveragefactory.com, and many others.
Now go out and taste (and taste again), and decide for yourself whether the glass matters.

Scott Hendley is a long-time Alexandria resident and avid wine enthusiast. In addition to being the wine blogger for the Alexandria Times, he has contributed to the online wine talk show graperadio.com.

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