Storm in a wine glass

(by peter)

Recently, Susie and I have been looking quite closely at a broad and fascinating subject that might loosely be termed ‘the science of taste’.

As those who have attended one of our wine courses will know, it’s a subject we like to explore by using jelly beans and aroma kits. The reason we do this is that we find the best way to approach wine is by learning about (and having fun with) how our sense of taste works.

It was in this context that I wanted to learn more about the subject of wine glasses.

More specifically, I wanted to find out for myself the extent to which the glass we use affects our appreciation of a wine. And, if it does make a difference (which it’s generally accepted to) then which glasses are the best to buy? How many should a wine lover own, and what type? And what about practicalities like putting them in the dishwasher, or avoiding staining and breakages?

I’ll be honest from the outset – this wasn’t an entirely altruistic exercise.

We were given some lovely Riedel glasses for our wedding, but breakages are an inescapable outcome where elegant stemware is concerned, and after a while the bills begin to run up. (Even when said glass-ware is kept well out of the reach of nimble little fingers.)

In short, the Richards household could do with more glasses. But what to choose, at what price, and why?

As Riedel is by far the best known manufacturer of wine glasses, I thought I’d start with them. This company, first founded in 1756 as a manufacturer of perfume bottles, has been tireless in its evangelical promotion of its wine glasses and decanters, virtually single-handedly convincing a generation of wine lovers that glass-ware makes a difference to their appreciation of wine.

The event I attended was held on a damp, drizzly autumn day in one of the cavernous halls in Vinopolis. Early evening drinks were being held in a darkened ante-chamber when I arrived; the only light in the room emanated furtively from back-lit displays featuring all kinds of intricate glass-ware.

We then moved into the main hall, where careful mood lighting, a powerful sound system and stacks upon stacks of Riedel boxes contrived to create an atmospheric scene. I was immediately (and unfortunately) reminded of the scene in the film Dragnet, where the PAGAN cult ceremony unfolds in a vast stadium to the hoots of brain-washed acolytes. I tried to put this out of my mind.

Maximilian Riedel – the 11th generation – is a polished performer, impeccably tailored and with a smooth-as-silk Austrian accent. We tasted four wines, in different shaped glasses, while Max flitted between explaining how and why the glasses worked, and regaling us with witty anecdotes and repartee. One sensed it was a tried-and-tested formula – persuasive and gently engaging, without being too hard a sell. Certainly, the noises being made around me suggested people were not only enjoying themselves, but also buying into the logic of Riedel’s argument.

During the course of the evening, Riedel came out with some humorous, and surprising, claims.

  • The balloon-like Montrachet glass is not only the best for oaked Chardonnay, but in Riedel’s eyes it also has another unexpected benefit – it floats well in your hot tub.
  • When asked the best way to clean his new ‘Eve’ decanter (an impossibly contorted yet stunning tubular decanter), he advised the audience that the best way was to do it ‘in the bath’.
  • Riedel asserted that soon the tall champagne ‘flute’ would become obsolete and would be replaced for sparkling wine by Riedel’s bulbous Pinot Noir glass – far better for the fizzy stuff, in his opinion.

For my part, I came away impressed yet ultimately unconvinced.

Having paid close attention to the tasting, I agreed that the different glasses did make marked differences to how the wines smelled. The Sauvignon Blanc smelt better in a more upright glass than in the balloon-like Chardonnay glass. The Pinot Noir worked better in the bulbous glass that in the more tulip-shaped Cabernet glass.

But I disagreed with the assertion that the different glasses ‘deliver’ the wine in different ways to your palate, and that this affects the taste. I tried the same wine out of all four, very different glasses, and the taste was ultimately the same – mainly because the wine immediately dissipates across the palate anyway, and the taste/flavour sensation is one that accrues over time in the mouth.

What did make a difference, however, was how the glasses looked and felt in my hand. The big, fat Chardonnay glass just felt more opulent while swirling and tasting; the elegant Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling was, well, lighter. It seems clear that, beyond the mechanics of taste, there is also a psychosomatic effect at play. After all, these are beautifully sculpted glasses – and that contributes to the overall experience of drinking the wine.

After this experience, I felt in need of a more objective overview. So I popped in one morning to Around Wine, a London store whose main business is selling Eurocave wine fridges, but whose director Daniel Primack is also something of a self-confessed glass geek, and a fascinating mine of information on the subject. (As an interesting aside, Primack – a biomedical graduate – used to work for Estée Lauder selling hair-care products – his advice to hairdressers on how to make more money often being: ‘cut less hair’!)

We sat down for two hours and tried two wines – a Pewsey Vale Riesling and a Costières de Nîmes – from a table-full of glasses made by three manufacturers: Riedel, Zalto and Zwiesel.

My conclusions? Zalto is the exciting new name in the world of wine glasses, while Zwiesel is also one to watch. Riedel, while undoubtedly effective and broader in range than the other two, can be expensive for what it is.

As an instructive comparison, I focused on the all-purpose glasses from all three ranges.

Riedel’s Chianti glass in its Vinum (machine-made) range is a fine all-purpose glass, and decent value at £17.50. But the same glass in its Sommelier (hand-made) range – essentially the same experience, you’re just paying for the heritage – is £65.

Contrast this with the excellent Zalto ‘white wine’ and ‘Universal’ glasses at £26. Both are hand-made and cooled over 24 hours rather than the standard 12, meaning a more sturdy and flexible stem. Zalto glasses are angular and flat-bottomed in shape – a distinctive style, probably not to everyone’s taste – but are effective: I found Zalto’s white wine and universal to be excellent glasses.

Zwiesel sits somewhere in the middle. Their Chianti glass, a handy egg-shape, worked well for both white and red wines. At £31 it’s more expensive than Zalto, but is also hand-made.

Both Zalto and Zwiesel are mouth-blown and do not use lead as a base material. Lead-based glasses, such as Riedel’s, can look more brilliant and less brittle (also cheaper to make) than non-lead-based glasses, according to Primack. The flipside is that lead can be harsher on the environment and lead-based glasses can go cloudy quicker after repeated washing. Much also depends on the skill of the manufacturer in each case.

It’s true that Primack, by his own admission, is trying to do with Zalto what he ‘did with Riedel 5 years ago’ in his shop, after Riedel launched its own online UK retail operation. But the comparison of price and quality was instructive, and compelling.

Primack also had some interesting tips regarding washing glasses in dishwashers:

  • All wine glasses can be washed in a dishwasher – but with important caveats…
  • What ruins glasses is not calibrating the dishwasher properly. Consult the instructions carefully, especially with regard to the nature of the water in your local area and the correct amount of salt to use.
  • You may well need to buy a specially designed rack for your dishwasher for certain glasses. Riedel recommends Miele as a supplier.
  • Don’t wash glasses with other plates and cutlery.
  • Use the shortest, coolest setting.
  • Take extra care with lead-based glass, which will tend to go cloudier sooner than non-lead-based glasses.

In my view, none of this makes it easy for your average household to wash proper wine glasses by machine. No one uses enough glasses to require a wash all by themselves – and few will want the hassle and expense of ordering bespoke dishwasher racks. So it’s back to hand-washing then…

Primack himself always tries the same wine out of at least two glasses. I asked him what he’d recommend as the bare essentials that a wine lover’s glass cabinet should contain.

He recommended four basic shapes: a Chardonnay glass for full oaky whites, another white glass for aromatics (eg a tulip-shaped Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc shape), a Pinot/Barolo balloon and a large Cabernet/Merlot glass. Then a glass for fizz. And not forgetting your basic sweet and fortified glasses. Then maybe a water glass…

All of which, by my count, makes a basic recommendation of at least 8 glasses. (Primack, for the record, has 8 shapes – plus sweet, sparkling and fortified – making a total of 11. But then again he is a specialist, and it is part of his job description.)

A quick survey of the Richards household has thrown up at least 15 different wine glass types, from various manufacturers including Riedel, Spiegelau and, er, Habitat (no Ikea, however). But then several years on the Master of Wine course, plus the inevitable journalistic sampling, do tend to foster a merry rag-tag collection of all things wine-related.

As for how this may best be reformed, I have an inkling that the answer will lie with some carefully chosen Zalto glasses – maybe a sprinkling of Zwiesel. One thing’s for sure: the world of glass manufacturing is changing, and our cupboard doors are not closed to any particular supplier, providing they deliver quality, value and beauty.

And, most importantly, that they help keep our wine tasting delicious.