What’s in a glass?

It took me a while to grasp something that I now treat as gospel: that if you have a bottle of good wine, you really should drink it from the right sort of glass.

Drinking a wine whose whole point is to beguile you with its nuanced favours and aromas from a tea mug, a tumbler, a jar or any other sort of inappropriately shaped vessel would be like listening to dubstep through your mobile phone speaker, or reading Ulysses in Cantonese.

It was the Chef and Sommelier Open Up glass they use at the RAW fair that put me right. I ‘borrowed’ a couple after the first fair (boozed-up, sorry, won’t do it again) and have never looked back.

They have the flat base which means the largest possible surface area of the wine is exposed to oxygen, which means more of the volatile flavour molecules can be released. These glasses are excellent for all types of wine – red, white, sparkling, they will all show very well.

Champagnes and other sparkling wines, by the way, do not require flutes. The reason flutes are popular is that they show off the bubbles. If, however, you’re more interested in the wine’s aroma, the same principle that applies to still wines obtains here: it’s about having a bowl whose shape catches as much of the wine’s aroma as possible.

If you want to play around and find your fancy, you could buy glasses designed for specific types of wine. Glassware companies like Riedel, Spiegelau and Zalto make such glasses.

I’ve tried all three. I think Riedel is a class above: elegant but sturdy and substantial. Spiegelau is also good, if a bit less elegant. Zalto is an odd one to me – so delicate and brittle-seeming, with a stem so wafer-thin that it’s almost like it isn’t there (although Zalto acolytes will say that’s sort of the point).

Zalto is definitely the trendy new glass on the block, but whenever I hold a Zalto glass I feel as if I’m going to break it. I should in fairness say, though, that when I complained to Daniel Primack, Zalto’s main representative in the UK, about this, he pointed out that his restaurant clients had reported around a 30% decrease in breakages after converting to Zalto.

What makes the glass so important? In my experience, several things…

With white wines (except those that are so rich and complex that you don’t chill them) you want a glass that’s easy to hold by the stem, because you don’t want the heat from your fingers to warm the wine. Big tulip glasses full of wine are awkward to hold by the stems; longer, leaner ones less so.

Glasses for red wines vary quite a lot. Riedel has more than a dozen different glasses depending on which grape the wine you’re drinking is made from and even which part of the world the wine comes from.

The rationale behind such variety is that the different bowl shapes of these glasses control the flow of wine on to your tongue in different ways. Riedel argues that your tongue senses sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami in different areas, based on a tongue taste map that looks like this:


and that the glasses will emphasise the good and mute the less good characteristics in a given type of wine.

So, for example, a Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass

riedel bordeaux glass

is shaped the way it is because, says Riedel, ‘the shape directs the flow of wine on to the zone of the tongue which perceives sweetness, thus accentuating the fruit and de-emphasising the bitter qualities of the tannin’.

This is, by and large, bollocks. The tongue taste map idea was debunked by Nature nearly a decade ago, while the idea that all Bordeaux wines are of a sweetness that makes them distinct from other red wines is similarly testicular.

Nevertheless, the Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass is my favourite glass. I use it for all types of red wine; usually for whites as well. It’s that lovely, big, flavour-catching bowl that does it.

Whatever your particular glassware aesthetic may be, find a good glass, treasure it, caress it, read it romantic poetry in the small hours of the night; your wine drinking experience will be immeasurably better for it.