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The Incredible Importance of the Wine Glass
By Ed McCarthy
May 30, 2006
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A section in my "Wine for Dummies" book has the heading, "Does the Glass Really Matter"?  For me, this is one of the most important parts of the book.  I am constantly amazed at how different wines can taste in different glasses.  I cannot count how many times that I have been disappointed by wines served either in inferior or inappropriate wine glasses, both in restaurants and in private houses.

One time, a few years ago, I was looking forward to a vertical tasting of all the Opus One wines that had been produced up to that time.  My host was a gentleman of some means.  I entered his dining room with great anticipation.  Then I looked at his tiny, poor-quality glasses, which were the kind you might find in a neighborhood Italian restaurant.  Needless to say, the Opus One tasting was a failure.  How could I tell him that his wine glasses were terrible without insulting him?  

It is astonishing to me that someone can spend thousands of dollars on fine wines and then skimp on his or her wine glasses.  I suspect that the explanation for this is that many wine drinkers simply don't realize how important wine glasses are in conveying the taste and complete flavor profile of the wine to our palates.

Actually, there are two issues involved here:

1)  You need good-quality wine glasses to appreciate all the qualities in your wine (just as a cook needs good pots and pans to perform at his best);

2)  You need to use the right wine glass for the wine.

When I first started getting serious about wine some 30-odd years ago, very few fine wine glasses were available, at least in the U.S., except for very expensive crystal glasses made by Baccarat or Rosenthal.  In fact, I still have a few Rosenthal glasses left; they are very thin and delicate, with a high stem and fairly small bowl; they're perfect for Alsace and German Rieslings, and I treasure them. 

But then George Riedel visited the U.S. in the 1980s, with his amazing lineup of glasses (perhaps too many), one for every type of wine.  In addition to Riedel, the Spiegelau line of crystal wine glasses caters to wine lovers, and is also very good, but somewhat less expensive than Riedel (Riedel now owns Spiegelau, as well).  If you're looking for fine wine glasses but don't want to pay the price for Riedel or Spiegelau, consider Ravenscroft, a fairly new glass company headquartered in New York City that has a complete line of fine wine glasses at reasonable prices.

In other words, good wine glasses are now available at various price points.  No one who cares about wine and who serves fine wine should have to settle for anything less than fine crystal glasses.  If you're serious about wine, you might want to own two levels of glasses. My best glasses are reserved for "serious" wines and for company.  I also have a set of 24 standard glasses with a good-sized bowl and a short stem that I use for everyday wine and for tastings; these glasses can be put in the dishwasher.  The better glasses I wash by hand, using a supermarket washing soda that does not leave a soapy residue in the glass. 

But what glass goes best with different types of wine?  I will give you some general guidelines that I have learned through trial and error over the years:

--Avoid glasses with small bowls--except perhaps for sherry and other fortified dessert wines.  Glasses with larger bowls convey the aromas and flavors of red, rosé, white, and sparkling wines better.

--In general, I prefer wine glasses with stems to the stemless glasses that are available today.  You can swirl the wine better, to elicit its aromas; besides, the shape of the bowl in stemmed glasses is usually superior to the stemless glasses.

--Red wine in the Cabernet/Merlot family (all the varieties of Bordeaux, for example; Sangiovese-based wines, Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, Tempranillo/Rioja, Gamay/Beaujolais, Grenache, Dolcetto, Aglianico, Primitivo), which is to say, most red wines, usually taste better in a fairly large, elongated, somewhat narrower bowls.  Such glasses are sometimes referred to simply as "Bordeaux" glasses.  The reason behind this performance phenomenon seems to be that this shape of bowl concentrates the aromas and flavors more than a wider-bowled glass.  It is important to note that if the flavors of the wine seem too attenuated or less concentrated than you would expect, you should try a glass with a somewhat smaller bowl.  Sometimes, a wine will taste less concentrated in a glass with too large a bowl. 

--Pinot Noir/Burgundy, Barolo/Barbaresco, and Barbera are the three families of red wine that usually taste better in a large glass with a wide, round (apple-shaped) bowl, which is commonly known as the "Burgundy" glass.  These particular wines are prized for their aromas, and the wider-mouthed bowls seem to work best here.  I have a special glass which I think is the best for Barolo and Barbaresco; it's called the Wilsberger Burgunder, now made by Spiegelau.  I discovered this amazing glass--excellent for Pinot Noirs, Burgundy, and Barbera as well as Barolo/Barbaresco--when I was visiting the late Giovanni Conterno of Giacomo Conterno Winery in Piedmont some years ago.  He swore by this glass, and he was right.  If you are a lover of Barolo and Barbaresco, you owe it to yourself to find these glasses (Google "Wilsberger Burgunder" if you have trouble locating this glass, which is easier to find in Europe than in the U.S.).

--Chardonnay/White Burgundy/Chablis work best in wider-bowled glasses similar to the Burgundy glass, though in such cases the bowl can be somewhat smaller.  My favorite glass for white Burgundy and fine Chardonnay is Riedel's Montrachet glass (in his "Sommelier" line).  Viognier/Condrieu and other very aromatic white wines work well in these glasses as well.

--Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, Albariño, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco, Semillon (in other words, most white wines) usually taste better in a fairly large, elongated, somewhat narrower bowl similar to the red Bordeaux glass, but the bowl can be a bit smaller. 

--For Champagnes and sparkling wines, I recommend three different types of glasses: a simple, tall, narrow flute is fine for most inexpensive sparkling wines and non-vintage Champagnes; a wider-mouthed, larger-bowled tulip-shaped glass works best for better sparkling wines, Vintage Champagnes, and Prestige Cuvées (If you have to choose either the flute or the tulip glass, go for the tulip; it's the better all-around Champagne glass); a white wine glass (see Sauvignon Blanc section above) works best for older or mature Champagnes with complex aromas, or for very full-bodied Champagnes, such as Krug or Bollinger. 

My favorite Champagne glass is called "Les Impitoyables" (meaning the pitiless ones). As you might have guessed, it's a French line of glasses, not currently available in the U.S.  Its Champagne glass is the best of its line; it's a wide-mouthed tulip glass that is ridged or etched throughout.  The ridges somehow capture the aromas and deliver them to the palate.  The Impitoyable seems to make all of our Champagnes taste more concentrated and flavorful.  If you love Champagne--and who doesn't--seek out these glasses if your travels take you to Paris.

Perhaps you've heard the expression, "Clothes make the man (or woman)"?  I'm not sure if that's true or not, but for me, the right glass can truly make your wine experience memorable.