WINE STUFF: The Glass Matters

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.  In a nice zippered carrying case designed for large, Bordeaux/Cabernet-style wine glasses.  When I opened the case, the look on our friends’ faces was a mix of amusement and incomprehension.  “Our wine glasses aren’t good enough for you?” they asked.  Thankfully, they are close enough friends for me to answer honestly:  “for the wine we’re having tonight, no.” 

You’re 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, it’s hard to describe an appropriately-shaped wine glass, but in general terms it is thus:  for reds:  narrow and tapered; for whites:  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 can’t really say.  From a purely sensory point of view, though, I can tell you that an appropriately-shaped glass focuses a wine’s aromas and delivers it onto the palate in a way that maximizes flavors and overall enjoyment.

I haven’t 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 we attended a wine tasting party several years ago hosted by a guy who served the wines in Riedel glasses.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Riedel is an Austrian glassware manufacturer that makes 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 served in Bordeaux/Cabernet-style Riedel glasses.  It was a revelation.

I was determined that, from that moment-on, we should drink wine only from appropriately-shaped glasses.  Translating that reasoned intention into practical reality, though, wasn’t a simple matter.  I sure liked the Riedel glasses, but faced two nagging obstacles.  First, Riedel glasses are expensive, at that time costing anywhere from $30 to $100 a stem, which wasn’t feasible for everyday use.  Second, they’re 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 I’m 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 – unintentionally, of course – and spent much of the evening in the emergency room).  Recognizing that high cost + fragility = inevitable disaster, I concluded that Riedel just wasn’t the right glass for me.

It didn’t take long, however, to discover a functional and affordable alternative.  While moseying through a great china and glass outlet store with my wife in Reading, Pennsylvania, one day, 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 per 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).  I’ve broken many and had to buy replacements since then (thankfully, they’re inexpensive enough to get away with this), but these are still the glasses I use (and carry around) everyday.  As it turns out, the glasses are made by Spiegelau, an age-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.  The best news is that today I don’t have to travel all the way to Reading, PA, to find them; the Spiegelau glasses are sold at World Market, under their store brand, for about $7 per stem.  Now I can have my wine glass and break it, too.

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