Choosing the Right Wine Glass Can Make Your Wine Taste Better!
When wine becomes a habitual pleasure in life, one is bound to confront a thought that is either a mix of sardonic curiosity or very genuine curiosity. At some point, you ask yourself, is there something to pairing a wine with a so called proper glass?
Whether our experience has been fine dining, or casually perusing the floor of a favorite wine retailer, we are all bound to see displays of different styles of wine glassware at some point, along with decanters – which initially may appear to be little more than a fine glass vase. And perhaps it may be little more – until that is, we scratch the surface of wine glassware and see that experience proves otherwise.
Perhaps the setting we as wine drinkers are most likely to confront the sardonic, curious thought what with all the pomp of different glassware is at a restaurant or wine bar. But certainly, this proves to be a general rule of experience, as wineries, private tastings – or other venues even, may be as likely to offer various different glassware as well. In any event, it is in any restaurant or wine bar that boasts a great variety of wine styles – that we are most immediately engaged by different accompanying styles of glassware. Naturally, in these settings, we see different styles of wine glasses proper to a style of wine in action . As with any of these settings, it follows that with a great wine variety, comes a great variety of accoutrements.
Before you invest in that 12 piece set of Riedel glasses you have been eyeing lately, it is strongly encouraged you visit your local winery, restaurant, or wine bar that will serve wine in its accompanying style of glassware. But, should you choose to invest in those elegant Riedel glasses after reading this article, you will at least have a good starting point to explore confidently.
The philosophy behind using glassware proper to a distinct style of wine, is that we want to deliver the best possible flavor to the palate. Wine is, after all a gift, a wondrous experience and a great pleasure of the table. So just as proper glassware will enhance our experience of a wine, so will an improper glassware diminish our enjoyment.
Most of us here have, at some point, heard of two different terms used casually when it comes to wine glasses. At any point we may hear stemware, glassware, or crystals used to describe wine glasses. So we will clarify between two principle terms. The distinction between crystal and glasses may be summed up as follows: all crystal is glass, but not all glass is crystal.
From our casual experiences of holding, or drinking from a crystal wine glass- most of us will associate a crystal as fairly delicate. But beyond the cursory stuff of our experience with wine glasses, the distinction between wine crystals and glasses has historically been the presence of lead oxide. You read correctly. We say historically here because traditional glasses were – and in some cases – continue to be made with lead oxide.
Manufacturers that have and continue to use lead in wine glasses, use the element to soften glass, and make it easier to be engraved. As it turns out, traditional glassware carries the risk of lead leaching out to the surface of the glass. It is here we encourage you to check with your retailer or the manufacturer of your product before making your purchase. For health and safety reasons, the bottom line is, avoid lead oxide.
But fortunately today, many manufacturers have shifted towards safer, more sophisticated ways of producing crystals minus the lead oxide. Today, many crystals are produced through lead-free substances, such as barium carbonate and both zinc and titanium oxide.
With this in mind, we will refer to fine wine glasses from here on as crystals, although they are basically interchangeable terms for the most part. If you habitually enjoy wine, you will in time make your own conclusions that crystals are indeed ideal, insofar as they truly enhance the experience of the grape varietal you are enjoying. But do note, asking for crystals in whatever setting – whether restaurant, or retail – means getting finer glassware all the time.
Our understanding and ability to choose the proper crystal for wine begins with understanding the different parts of our crystal. Believe it or not a wine crystal has an anatomy! Different parts are associated with the following terms. Now, if you can’t help but stifle the thought that this seems finicky, or trifling, then remind yourself then, that wine is a cultivated, highly civilized pleasure, after all! And since the ancient times of the Near East or ancient Greece, we have come along way in enhancing our experience of a noble drink from time immemorial. Crystalware is truly an art and science whose understanding deepens our appreciation for wine.
In any event, we start from the bottom to the top of a wine crystal. The base of our crystal is referred to as the feet. More obvious is the stem, which elevates the body of the glass, and prevents your hand from warming its contents, especially if you are enjoying a delightfully crisp, Marlborough sauvignon blanc. (Incidentally, some wine professionals and lay persons will refer to crystals as stemware. As if there were not enough fine distinctions to be made!) The bowl of the crystal, just mentioned – is the body of the crystal. And lastly, the lip of the wine glass is referred to as the rim.
By distinguishing different parts of the crystal, we deepen our understanding of how its design contributes to our experience both smelling and tasting our wine as we shall see here.
The principles that go behind making good wine crystals are not essentially ergonomic, aesthetic or even state-of-the-art. The wine crystal, although it should be easy to hold (and there is currently a wine crystal on the market that bears resemblance to a spinning top, without a stem), is not our primary concern.
Neither are the aesthetics even, of elaborate swan shaped decanters or beautifully etched wine glasses a concern.
Nor is the emphasis so much placed on what new composite glass material it is made out of. And although these things may be worth some consideration, they do not define the essence of a good crystal. Simply put, the essence of a good crystal – the appropriate crystal to a style of wine – is how good it will make our wine taste.
The essential question is, will this crystal deliver the best experience of this Syrah? Or how about the Tempranillo? Will the delicate nose of an Alsatian riesling be lost in this crystal at hand?
To paraphrase Christopher Cribb of Marquee Selections, the thought behind creating and serving wine in proper crystals is 1. We want to see how a grape best expresses itself, 2. Have adequate room to spin a wine in the crystal, and 3. Ensure the best delivery of wine to the palate.
If you are throwing a party, and serving a bottle of Rioja, you might not give it a second thought bringing plastic drink cups to serve your wine. Plastic cups are inexpensive and practical, after all. But the same Spanish red wine that you delighted in taste sampling at your favorite wine bar, once poured, takes on quite a different character. The wine you, you will find – has no nose. Swirling the Rioja is as clumsy as the gulp – which is precisely how it hits the palate. What was formerly a little symphony of flavor in your mouth, from the introduction of fruit notes approaching your palate, which gave way to herbaceous notes of red spice, that finally seemed to have been structured around woody notes of cedar on the finish – is easily thrown down the hatch!
Although we should place great emphasis on the nose of a wine, a wine is ultimately consumed, and therefore largely experienced through the palate. Thus, as in the instance above, a plastic cup clumsily delivers a red wine that should merit more thoughtful drinking. Use a plastic cup, and you are essentially tossing the wine to the back of the throat. You are missing its full character of flavor.
In all his erudition and poeticism, the Austrian Maximilian Riedel observes that wine crystals are the tools which we not only use to consume wine, but use to deliver to the palate. For Riedel, a proper glass means the proper flow of wine to the mouth.
But let us return back to the Rioja tasting. If we drink the wine from a crystal, we will find a superior taste experience.
Now, it should suffice it to say, that there is a dizzying assortment of wine crystals for red wine available in the market. Is it truly necessary to choose a one glass for Rioja, another for merlot, and yet another for cabernet sauvignon? Yes and no. But for general purposes – no. These are, for example, medium to full-bodied wines.
In reality, you will observe that restaurants or bars with specialized crystal basically have three or four different glasses for any wine that spans the spectrum of light-bodied to full-bodied in style: from beaujolais to cabernet sauvignon. Generally speaking, the reader need not fuss over three or four basic wine crystals for both reds and whites.
Our Rioja, along with other medium to full-bodied wine styles, including merlot, Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux, are best served in crystals whose rim is slightly narrower than the bowl, tapering slightly bottom to top.
Go ahead, explore on your own. By all means, take a break from reading, but be sure to read on for white wines. If not, then use some wine-imagination. The design of this type of glass allows for vigorous stirring, a ritual as sophisticated as it will make you look as it is necessary to force more air into your wine, allowing it to breathe. A crystal whose rim is narrower than its body exposes your merlot, or Syrah to some air, but does not do overkill. Its design allows for the bouquet or aromas to gently engage your nose. Tilting the glass back to your lips delivers the wine in a more a controlled flow – and not all at once like a brusque gulp as our former “tool” – the plastic party cup. Truthfully, a plastic cup whose design more closely follows a real crystal would be an upgrade. Today, these plastic wine cups with stems can be found in many retailers.
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But you may object, and point out that – there is a larger, more bowl-like goblet of a wine glass. And this is not invalid point. Sometimes billed as “sommelier” or “Bordeaux crystals” these glasses can very easily accommodate a great deal of wine. Some are easily a decanter, accommodating a whole bottle of wine (750ml)! And there is credence to this objection. A larger, goblet-like crystal is well suited for a great Bordeaux wine that demands a breath of air and a violent stir. And this crystal easily accomplishes that. With a wider rim, more air activates the wine, opening it up at the same time. A principle that applies more or less to a decanter.
Assuming that most of us are in fact lay persons, and not wine sommeliers or critics at a tasting panel, the first style of wine glass is an excellent choice and fits our needs no less.
With lighter styles of red wines, such as beaujolais, pinot noir, or perhaps even zinfandel, it is suggested you choose a glass which appears more sharply angular in design than the above. Lighter wines, such as pinot noir, especially from the Burgundy region of France, are known for having fine aromas of licorice and black spice, pepper, and earthy noses along paired red fruits. A distinctly narrower rim simply contains more of the bouquet of a pinot noir for instance. Too much immediate exposure to air, and some of the delicacy of this lighter wine, especially beaujolais – may very well be mitigated. As wine drinkers, we want our sense of smell and taste to both be engaged and surprised by our wine’s offerings. These crystals clearly (no pun intended) allow for vigorous swirling.
But do not worry: you are not uncouth for serving a merlot or a cabernet in the same glass. Just don’t do it at the same time!
When it comes to serving wine, we may add another option to allow a greater quantity of wine from the bottle to breathe – that is to say – allow it to be activated by ambient air – by pouring some or all of a wine from the bottle into a decanter. Mentioned above, looking like a nice glass vase. Decanters range from being quite sturdy glass, to being finer and more delicate like crystals. It makes no difference whichever way you go. A decanter is essentially a matter of convenience. Christopher Cribbs quips that a decanter “smooths out tannins” and Riedel posits that a decanter makes a wine less “tight”. In any event, a decanter is a convenient tool because it allows wine- especially older vintages — expose themselves to ambient air for an hour or more – the period of time is completely up to you. Typically, red wines as opposed to whites are decanted. Some exceptions would include whites that have formed tartaric crystals which is quite another story. Decanters also can rage in aesthetics from the elegant to the elaborate to the absurd.
For those that are impatient to aerate, or would rather not fuss with a swan shaped decanter, you might find the Venturi, personal aerator a great alternative.
The underlying rationale for pairing certain styles of white wine to crystals is easily accessible, now that we have seen the basic principles behind crystal design and wine delivery. Again, so as not to get lost in all the intricacies of pairing crystals to wine styles, the reader should generally think of two or three types of wine crystals to white wines.
We need not discuss as in such great detail as the above, but a cursory glance over white wine glasses reveal no less an rationale for design.
For instance, a delicate-on-the-nose riesling, which wafts gentle notes of white flower, lemon zest, citrus or green apple is best matched to a taller, fluted crystal. The design of the crystal allows for delicate aromas to pronounce themselves, and a narrow lip acts as an acidity barrier. Serve a riesling in a Montrachet glass, for instance, and the wine flowing to the palate is just not as balanced. A good riesling, especially a kabinett, can hold lively, bright energetic notes of citrus with a sorbet like finish; but these lively notes are offset by its own innate acidity which makes it refreshing – it causes the palate to salivate. In a wider lipped crystal, the delicacy of what this light white wine has to offer, is greatly diminished, and therefore less enjoyable.
Consider as well that lighter white wines such as riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc do not demand so much vigorous swirling. They are hardly that complex. That is not to say that they are less enjoyable than red wines, but they are of a different nature; they are quite their own experience. To illustrate, I would urge you to eat oysters on the half shell and pair them with a nice South African Chenin Blanc. You are welcome.
Fuller-bodied white wines, such as chardonnay, particularly American chardonnay noted for its toasted vanilla notes from American oak, are best matched to a wider-lipped crystal. Generally, speaking, a good rule of thumb here is to bear in mind that a chardonnay, like a red wine, spends some time in oak barrels, and therefore has greater complexity. Notes of honeysuckle, butterscotch, vanilla, citrus and white flowers structured around woody notes are transmitted from American oak. A white wine that is more complex, like a chardonnay, need not be decanted, necessarily, but merits its own special wine crystal.
Maximilian Riedel, mentioned above, of Riedel glassware, has designed a crystal whose design lends itself to the character of oaked whites. The model in mind is the Montrachet crystal. Wider lipped, but proving an over all shorter bowl all around, this wine crystal allows wines such as chardonnay, Pouilly-Fuissé, and white Burgundy to be optimally delivered to the palate as described above.
Last in our discussion of wine crystals includes sparkling wines such as cava, champagne brut,
and cuvée prestige. Now there are two directions we can proceed here. Taller wine crystals, such as flutes, are slender in body, and tight on the lip. Sparkling wines, to be sure, are most enjoyed when bubbly and therefore, too much exposure to ambient air, and the crisp, effervescent quality of champagne is greatly diminished. Champagne, for instance, is a delicate wine. Try Perrier Jouët and you will see delicate notes of toasted brioche and white flower greet the nose and palate. At the same time, coupe glasses are sometimes opted in lieu of flutes. Their design implies a greater facility in looking at bubbles (believe it or not). I know of no other benefit to coupe glasses, and have yet to hear of any other advantage.
So there you have it – a crash course in matching wine crystals (glasses) with the wines, whether white or red. You have made it thus far, and should have a good foundation to explore on your own. After all, experience is a great a teacher, and there is simply no substitute for tasting and seeing for yourself.