A Touch of Glass

The importance of the proper stemware.
April 1, 2002

Try this experiment with a ten-dollar bottle of red wine: Pour some into any old goblet and some into a proper tulip-shaped crystal Bordeaux glass. Taste. I guarantee you'll think you're drinking two different wines.

The glass you choose has a tremendous impact on your enjoyment of wine. Even unremarkable wines taste more elegant and refined when served in suitable stemware. And the finest wines are all but wasted if you drink them out of coffee mugs. The acquisition of excellent stemware is the first step towards improving your in-home wine experience.

Stemware Basics
A great wine glass is plain, colorless and tulip-shaped, with a stem and a very thin lip, and made of crystal. A tinted glass, or one with etchings, doesn't allow you to appreciate a wine's beautiful color. The tulip shape, wherein the glass tapers back in at the lip, allows for the concentration and collection of a wine's aroma. Remember, the taste buds are far less dynamic and discerning than the olfactory bulb -- 90 percent of what we call taste, biologically speaking, is actually smell. The stem allows you to hold the glass without warming the wine with your body heat. (Only brandy snifters don't have stems, and that's because you're supposed to warm the brandy with your hand.) A thin, properly shaped lip directs the flow of the wine into your mouth in such a way that the smooth stream touches the most sensitive areas of the tongue. A thick-rimmed glass, on the other hand, accentuates a wine's flaws, particularly harsh acidity and bitterness. Crystal has a rougher surface, on a microscopic level, than regular glass and therefore helps wine release its aromas as you drink.

The Four Essential Glasses
A respectable arsenal of stemware includes four glasses: a general-purpose white wine glass, two types of red wine glasses (commonly called Bordeaux and Burgundy) and a champagne flute. The white wine glass is small, in order to prevent the rapid warming that would occur in a vessel with more surface area. The Bordeaux glass (which is also appropriate for other hearty red wines, like cabernet and merlot) is larger, which allows for more development of the bouquet. Intuitively, you'd think a Bordeaux glass would be larger than a Burgundy glass, because Bordeaux is a "bigger" wine, richer and more fully flavored. But the Burgundy glass is the largest in any stemware collection exactly because Burgundy-type wines (such as pinot noir and other delicate varieties) are so subtle that they need a huge area in which to gather their aromas. The most notable feature of the champagne flute is that it's tall, to allow the proper development of bubbles.

Above and Beyond
There's virtually no limit to the number of glasses you can acquire. Serious collectors often have twenty or thirty varieties, specifically engineered for different types of wine of various ages. If you wish to explore the possibilities, start with Georg Riedel, the famed Austrian glassmaker and innovator. Riedel crystal has set the standard by which we judge all other glassmakers. Riedel's fans have included Winston Churchill, the Duchess of Windsor and renowned wine writer Robert Parker, who says of Riedel glasses, "They are the finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes." Sommeliers throughout the world agree, as do other glass producers, as they attempt to duplicate Riedel's sixty-four sizes and shapes. In restaurants, where glasses so often break, we use Riedel glasses only for very rare wines. However, I've found that Spiegelau makes excellent, sturdy imitations of the most popular Riedel shapes at about a quarter of the price.

Keep It Clean
All the fancy stemware in the world won't be worth a damn if you don't clean it obsessively. Crystal's porous surface absorbs kitchen smells, musty cupboard aromas and dish soap. Never just take a glass from the cabinet and pour wine into it. Just before serving, always rewash your stemware in very hot, sudsy water and rinse it over and over again. Polish with a lint-free cloth laundered without fabric softener (which leaves an invisible film). Then stick your nose in the glass and inhale -- you should either smell nothing, or wash it again.