I can almost hear the cynics. “Not content with all the pretentious claptrap about wine itself, you now suggest different wines need different glasses.” Fair dues; initially, many in the wine trade were similarly sceptical. However, ninth-generation Bavarian glass producer Claus Riedel and his son Georg have steadily changed all that.
It has long been received wisdom that glasses with bigger bowls increase the surface area of red wines, exposing them to air to help them ‘breathe’. For white wines, narrower bowls are preferable, to keep the liquid cooler by restricting its contact with that same air – which, of course, is warmer, at room temperature.
Riedel senior was the first to go further and link the more detailed shape of a glass to the taste and aroma of its contents. Although the science is not universally accepted, he based his designs on the widespread view about the variation in sensitivity to, say, sweetness, acidity or bitterness on different parts of the palate.
Consequently, not only are Riedel glasses cut and polished by laser to give the best lip-feel but many are designed to channel certain wines to the mouth parts most attuned to its specific characteristics. For instance, a narrow-lipped glass forces drinkers to tip their heads back and, thus, change the shape of their tongues – exposing a particular set of receptors to the wine. By contrast, drinkers approach wide-lipped glasses with heads level and tongues flat, which brings the whole surface area into contact with what is in the glass.
The critical question, though, is how all this affects the enjoyment of a wine. To find out, a group of us assembled in the stylish restaurant of Edinburgh’s Bonham Hotel for a practical test.
The first glass encountered was a surprise; a wine tumbler was being used – in this case for New Zealand sauvignon. Tumblers are becoming increasingly popular, and this one brought out the sauvignon’s floral, citrus and tropical fruit well, especially before the wine was swirled. But amazingly that freshness disappeared when it was transferred to a goblet-shaped Montrachet chardonnay glass; in fact, the now empty tumbler actually smelt better.
However, when we sampled a full, oak-aged chardonnay, the Montrachet chardonnay glass – which is specifically designed to accentuate the results of maturation in wood – did a superb job of bringing out the aroma and taste of the wine’s fruit, complexity and characteristic butteriness. Back in the tumbler, all you could detect were vague hints of honey in a pretty bland wine with a short finish.
With a Bordeaux-blend red, however, the chardonnay glass simply brought on the tannin very early and left a dull and unexciting wine. The taller and aptly named cabernet glass, by contrast, gave it real energy and balanced the wine’s acidity and tannin perfectly. This glass has been designed to deal with an additional component – the effects of the maceration process (contact with grape skins and the like).
Many wine producers are firmly convinced – as we are now – by this sort of tasting, and there is growing demand for glasses designed for specific wines. Similarly, many restaurants also take Riedel’s ideas sufficiently seriously to set tables only with water tumblers and delay bringing other glasses until wines are chosen.
Keeping a huge range of glasses at home is impractical. Instead, a good option is to invest in Riedel Vinum riesling grand cru glasses (around £40 for two) for whites and Vinum XL syrah glasses (about £50 a pair) for reds. To push the boat further out, especially if you enjoy classic chardonnay, opt as well for the Vinum Montrachet chardonnay glasses (around £32 each). These can be ordered online from Riedel (www.theriedelshop.co.uk), and try not to be shy about spending the same on each special-occasion glass as you do on a bottle of quality wine. After all, one of them will give you recurring drinking pleasure. •
2011 Lefkes Moschofilero, Peloponnese, Greece, 12.5 per cent The moschofilero grape is a spicy yet floral variety grown mainly in Greece, and here it creates an unusual but complex white with lemon fruit underpinned by fragrant orange and made memorable by lively acidity. £8.49, M&S
2008 The Society’s Rioja Crianza, Laguardia, Spain, 13.5 per cent This terrific Crianza has tannins softened by American oak to create a smooth, nutty and chocolate backdrop without dominating the nicely rounded cherry and dried-fruit flavours. £6.95, The Wine Society
Bargain alert Aldi has some top wines at great prices from Thursday, but stocks are limited. Examples include Puligny Montrachet (£16.99), Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2000 (£17.99 for 50cl) and 30-year-old Tawny Port NV (£37.99).