A lot of fuss about nothing? Do different glass shapes really enhance anything more than your interior décor, asks BEVERLEY BLANNING MW.
There are times when a drink can taste wonderful from any vessel: Champagne from a mug in a new home, Pimms in a plastic glass at a music festival, or rosé straight from the bottle at a beach picnic. But for when you need more than a happy predisposition to enjoy your drinking, a good wine glass is the preferred choice. Clear glass shows the colour and reflection of the liquid, it allows us to assess clarity and how bottle age has affected the wine’s evolution; and it gives clues about what to expect on the palate. Glass won’t interfere with the flavours of the wine and a stem will help maintain the temperature. To make the most of the aromas released, use a glass that narrows towards the top. But beyond these few simple rules, is the type and shape of glass you use really all that important? Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of different shapes and sizes, apparently designed to enhance individual varieties and wine styles. The idea that there is a ‘right’ shape is not new: producers long ago developed ‘standard’ glass shapes to show wines to best advantage, such as the slim sherry copita, Burgundy’s balloon shaped glasses that capture the Pinot scent, or the green stemmed Alsace goblet. I’ve always been sceptical about the idea that wines could taste significantly different from one glass to the next; this is, surely, little more than a marketing ruse to persuade people to buy more glasses. So I was interested to put my views to the test by tasting a range of wines in different glasses: a selection provided by glass maker, Riedel, and sundry items from my cupboard, including the trusty ISO (International Standards Organisation) glass beloved by wine educators and used for all my own Master of Wine exams. The first wine was a French Sauvignon Blanc. It smelled of nothing at all in a straight sided tumbler, and tasted rather flabby and soft. In a large, crystal, V-shaped glass with a flared lip it fared no better in terms of aroma. A finer rim means the glass presents less of a barrier, and it did improve the drinking experience. The palate was pleasant in the wide-mouthed crystal, but for a Sauvignon, it really lacked impact due to the absence of aromas. Next was the ISO tulip-shaped standard. For the first time I was able to perceive that the wine had very pungent and grassy aromas. On the palate it was more focused than the previous two options – a significant improvement. Time to try the Riedel glasses. I was not surprised that the Riedel Sauvignon Blanc glass performed better: it looks like a larger version of the ISO, so one would expect the aromas to be just as good and the palate a little more open. But the difference was quite startling. The nose was more complex and the palate rounder and fuller: a far better wine than the one I’d just tasted in the ISO glass. I decided to try the Sauvignon in the larger Bordeaux glass: more volume, more of everything, perhaps? There was certainly more aroma. In fact, it was slightly overwhelming. On the palate the wine tasted different again, and suddenly rather tart. How could the structure change so completely? I asked Riedel’s Martin Turner if he could explain. ‘It’s all to do with the width of the mouth of the glass,’ he said. Apparently, my enhanced perception of the acid was because the wider mouth had sent the wine to the sides of my tongue, where the sour taste receptors are located. The Sauvignon Blanc glass, on the other hand, works by directing the wine to different parts of the mouth, diminishing the effect of the acidity and bringing the other elements to the fore.
In my eight-word tasting note for a young, heavily oaked Chardonnay from Chile, tasted from an ISO glass, I used ‘oaky’ three times. The Sauvignon Blanc glass was an improvement, showing a softer and broader range of aromatics, but it was the Chardonnay glass that was significantly the best choice. Less enclosed at the top than either of the previous two, it gave less pungently oaky aromas and emphasised the rich, peachy, warm climate fruit. This is because the glass kept the wine near the front of my mouth, thereby lessening the effect of wood and alcohol, and accentuating the acidity. The similarly shaped, but slightly larger, Bordeaux glass was also a good choice for the oaky Chardonnay. All in the delivery. The shape of a glass not only affects where the wine lands on your tongue, but also the speed at which it travels there. A narrow aperture tends to mean faster delivery, as one needs to tilt either the head or the glass to drink the wine. The angle of the bowl also makes a difference. A gently sloping shape delivers a wine in a more measured way, while a sharply contoured shape will give a faster delivery. I tried my glasses on a couple of reds, starting with a young (2006) Hautes Côtes de Beaune Pinot Noir. The ISO standard glass gave punchy, but pretty one-dimensional aromatics and seemed to emphasise the alcohol: like quite a simple Pinot. I then compared the red Burgundy and white Burgundy (Chardonnay) glasses. The Riedel Chardonnay is identical in shape to the Burgundy, but cut off closer to the bowl, giving a wider mouth. Compared to the narrow aperture of the ISO, the Chardonnay glass gave a far more perfumed experience, with better texture, less apparent alcohol and higher acidity. In the red Burgundy glass the wine had still more concentrated aromas and a more perfumed, floral character. The more volatile aromas are captured in the bowl’s shape, which is slightly more enclosed at the top compared to the Chardonnay glass. It seemed also to have sweeter fruit and better texture. The Bordeaux glass – which is shaped like an extended version of the Burgundy glass – gave a balanced drink, with good intensity on the nose, but as with the white wines, this shape emphasised the acidity in the wine while apparently giving it added structure as well. Riedel says that the gentler gradient of the Bordeaux glass means the wine flows more slowly into the mouth than it does from the Burgundy glass. This emphasises the acidity, which in turn has a positive effect in a wine with plenty of tannins (as in many Bordeaux reds). Whether or not you believe it is possible to direct the flow of wines as precisely as the glass makers claim, they do seem to have a point. Riedel has been very successful in changing perceptions about glassware. Its Chianti glass has largely replaced the standard ISO at professional wine tastings, including the Decanter World Wine Awards. Top restaurants also believe that glassware is crucial. Head sommelier and wine buyer at London’s Chez Bruce, Terry Threlfall, says: ‘It makes a huge difference. It needs to be thin and have enough space to swirl the wine around.’ At Chez Bruce they use eight different types of glass. Threlfall explains that he prefers to use a smaller bowl for more delicate varieties, like Riesling, and a larger bowl for young, powerful reds, such as New World Shiraz. At home, he has a set of modern Alsace glasses he uses only for Riesling – ‘they are just perfect for Riesling’. He uses the Riedel Chianti glass for most other wines when off-duty.
Across the river at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, head sommelier Jean-Marie Pratts agrees: ‘The right glass is important to express the flavour and character of wine properly.’ Both he and Threlfall stress the importance of cleanliness. Threlfall says, ‘We spend most of our time cleaning glasses. The cloth must be clean and dry – and you mustn’t put glasses upside-down on a tablecloth, as they absorb any smells very easily.’ The range of glasses to choose from can be quite daunting but it definitely pays to try different glasses to see how they affect different wine styles. While it might not be de rigueur to start pouring wine into different glasses in your local department store before you buy, good restaurants will indulge your curiosity; last week I asked if I could taste my wine (a 1995 Chambolle Musigny premier cru) in a Bordeaux glass alongside the Burgundy glass. The sommelier was happy to oblige and the Burgundy glass won by quite a margin. To get the most out of your wine, it really does seem to be worth getting the right glass for the wines you like best.