How much should you worry about your stemware?
by David Marglin
One aspect of wine that tends to confuse even many avid wine
lovers is which glass one should use when. There are literally hundreds of
styles of wine glass. Riedel, a leading wine-glass maker, makes a different
shape for almost every major red varietal -- its newest offering is a special
Tempranillo glass for Spanish wines.
The theory is that the shape of the glass will change the way the wine smells
and tastes by affecting the way the aromas are presented to one's nose and
mouth. How true is this? Well, for the finest and most complex wines, there's
some merit to the idea -- these wines have great depth of flavor and an
enormous number of layers, and a good glass will allow your olfactory senses to
navigate those layers more gracefully. But for most wines, slight differences
in the shape of a glass will make little difference in the wine's taste.
Big variations in shape do matter somewhat, which is why glasses designed for
red wines and white wines have traditionally been different. Especially with
big red wines, you want to be able to get your nose in the glass, and you want
sufficient surface area for the wine to present its bouquet and aromas
properly. But a smaller glass works for white wines, which tend to have fewer
layers and more-focused flavors: one need not taste for breadth, but rather for
Aside from size, the other factor affecting taste is the thickness of the
glass. A truly thin glass will influence how the wine rolls into your mouth --
by literally changing which molecules of the wine reach you first. The thinnest
glasses can filter liquid, lessening the effects of sediment that might be in a
red wine. But true thinness is quite expensive -- the most rarefied, thinnest
hand-blown glasses can cost more than $100 per stem. (And they're so easy to
break that I try not to look at them funny.)
But as the complexity of the wine decreases, so too does the need for fine
glassware. At the end of the day, a beer mug, a jelly jar (especially those
squat Bonne Maman jars), even a cartoon juice glass will deliver wine to your
nose and mouth relatively well.
What is essential, I've found, is that your wine-delivery vessel actually be
made out of glass. I have drunk wine from paper, plastic, styrofoam, aluminum,
my hands, and any number of other substances, including wood, and I can
conclude with some confidence that wine tastes significantly better in glass
than in anything else. In fact, almost any other kind of container may change,
if not harm, the wine's intrinsic flavors. And drinking out of the bottle
totally destroys the pleasure of smelling a wine on its way into your mouth. If
you don't believe me, do a taste comparison between a wine out of a "glass"
glass and the same wine out of any other kind of container. You'll almost
certainly notice the difference.
Despite the magnificence of the wine-and-glass combination, I often observe
people camping or at festivals trying to enjoy wine out of plastic cups. This
is not the same wine experience. If you're bringing wine on a picnic or
a camping trip, please, I implore you: bring some kind of glass to drink it in.
In these situations you'll want something durable: Pyrex, or glass coffee
Another impediment to enjoying wine is something I encounter far too often: the
undersized glass. At many wine festivals, including our own Boston Wine Expo,
and even in some decent restaurants, the glasses are too small to get a good
sniff of many of the red wines (with whites I find the small-glass syndrome
less problematic). I would almost rather use a root-beer mug than one of those
glorified shot glasses. Besides, there should be enough wine in the glass for
you to get a full nose before each mouthful; ideally, a glass of wine should be
more than half full, so that the wine leaps up and hits you as it gets close to
your nose on every taste. This is why waiters at fine restaurants are quick to
refill your glass. It's not just so you'll finish the bottle faster; it's also
to guarantee an ample amount of liquid for each sip.
If you're at a restaurant, and you have ordered a nice red wine and they bring
you small glasses, don't hesitate to ask whether they have any nicer ones. If
they do, they will bring them, and if not, at least you will have expressed
your discontent with their existing stemware in a relatively gentle way.
At home, I suggest having two stem sizes -- large for reds, slightly smaller
for whites. Always err on the side of too big over too small, and try to keep
your guests' glasses slightly more than half-filled (unless they say they've
had enough -- in which case, conserve your wine). Out on the road, especially
in outdoor settings, make sure you have something made of glass on hand. No
other vessel will, ahem, cut it.
In preparation for my next column, on Oregon white wines, look for good 1998 or
1999 pinot gris from Willakenzie Estate, King Estate, or Chehalem, as well as
pinot blancs, gewürztraminers, muscats, and rieslings. You can drink these
robust young specimens in anything made out of glass, and they'll be just
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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