The word in some circles of the wine industry is that wine glasses are for snobs. "How will we ever attract hip, young people to wine if it's perceived as snooty and affected?" ask winemakersparticularly those with a lot of wine to sell. Sutter Home Winery, the father of white Zinfandel, is now promoting its $5 Soleo red and white wines poured on the rocks in a tumbler glass. The idea is to make wine drinking more attractive to a casual bar crowd.
If we were just talking about cheap, innocuous wine here, I might not be concerned. But not long ago, I visited a Sonoma winery that makes some pretty good wine. You guessed itthey served their wine in tumblers at the tasting room. "We're trying to create a relaxed atmosphere," an employee said. I wondered why a more traditional wine glass would cast a pall on the quaint, cozy environment. Apparently there are other vintners with misgivings about wine glasses; a recent wine industry survey found that 30 percent of the wineries polled believe stemware is a turnoff.
Perhaps the confusion about relaxation comes from the fact that tumblers are traditionally used for distilled spirits or the mixed drinks made with them. Spirit-based drinks certainly pack a bigger "relaxation" punch than wine. But the truth is that winemore delicate and less volatile than spiritsbenefits from an inward-curving glass that captures aromas. Tumblers, filled to the brim, simply release aromatics to the wind. They cheat your nose out of a good whiff.
At the opposite end of the tumbler trend is Georg Riedel, the Austrian glass maker who designs crystal glasses, each specific to a different wine. Riedel was in California recently demonstrating the prowess of his glassware, and it was interesting to see what effect a glass' shape and size can have on the taste and smell of a wine.
Riedel's 37-ounce Sommelier Burgundy Grand Cru (made for Pinot Noir) stands an impressive 9 3/4 inches high and conceivably can hold an entire bottle of wine. But that's not what Georg has in mind. He suggests filling it with 3 or 4 ounces of wine and using the rest of the space to swirl. A great wine's attributes do appear to be enhanced in this glass, just as a lesser wine's flaws might also be heightened. However, the price of one glass, which can be as high as $85, is a bit daunting. It's obviously not for everyday drinking.
Riedel also makes more affordable glassware, such as his Overture series. These 10- to 12-ounce glasses can be purchased for about $8 each and do a good job of highlighting any reasonably well-made wine. In fact, the key here is really size, not shape. A 10-ounce glass with 4 ounces of wine is the best way to appreciate it on a daily basis.
That isn't to say shape makes no difference. Riedel's various designs do affect taste and smell. I must say I don't always agree with his concept, however. To my palate, Sauvignon Blanc tasted much better in Riedel's Chardonnay glass than it did in his Sauvignon Blanc glass. What really counts is having a big enough glass with an inward-sloping lip to conserve aromatics. Thin glass, while more easily broken, also helps highlight flavor and texture, as thick-lipped glassware creates a barrier between palate and wine.
What about those snooty-looking stems, anyway? Well, I suppose they're not really necessary. They just make it easier to hold a glass and swirl itwhich helps release aromas. If you can find a nice 10-ounce egg- or bowl-shaped glass without a stem, and it makes you feel more relaxed or hip, use it.
Better yet, try this experiment: Take your best whiskey tumbler and your best wine glass and fill them each with 4 ounces of good vino. Next, swirl (if you can), smell and sip. You be the judge. (And remember to relax.)
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