Does the glass make the wine?

It's time to break out the fancy stemware - but how important is it to the taste of your celebratory sip?

December 20, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Does the shape of the wineglass affect the taste of the wine?

Yes and no, say sippers who know.

When arguing in the affirmative, they tell me the proper configuration of the glass - wider at its bottom, tapered at its top - allows for the felicitous pairing of air and wine surface. This, in short, allows you to stop, swirl and smell the good stuff.

World-renowned wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. likens the work done by a well-made glass to meteorological events. Swirling the wine in the bottom of the glass creates a "cyclone," he says. Then the aromas, "like the mistrals of France," rush toward the tapered top, where they are trapped, creating joy for the nose.

Tony Foreman, president of the Charleston Group, a Baltimore enterprise that operates a wine store and three local restaurants - including one, Charleston, that houses 13 different types of fine wineglasses - compares a wineglass to a craftsman's instrument.

"It is a tool in your toolbox," he said, something you can use to emphasize the qualities of a wine. Or as Foreman put it: "You don't drive a nail with a wrench."

Manufacturers, led by Riedel, an Austrian glassware dynasty for the past 250 years, have designed glasses to accommodate almost every wine grape. These designs, the manufacturers say, are the results of studies and tastings. Some say their glasses can function like a taste-bud limousine, depositing the goods straight to the proper spots on the tongue without taking unpleasant detours.

Some of those claims seem overstated, even to practiced palates. "It can be overdone," says Parker, who relies on one glass - the $23 Zinfandel glass in the Vinum line made by Riedel - to taste most reds, whites and even champagnes. Moreover, Parker said some of the fancy glasses, such as balloon-shaped vessels that can hold 37 ounces, are too big.

"The proper air-to-wine ratio is 3-to-1," said Parker. Some of those balloon glasses are so big, you have to pour most of a full bottle in the glass to get that ratio, he said.

Peter Wood of the Wine Source, one of several area wine shops that sell upscale glasses, says that while the glass brings out the grace notes, it is the wine that delivers most of the flavor. "A great wine will taste great in a jelly jar," Wood says. "A bad wine will not be much improved by serving it in an expensive glass."

Some years ago, Foreman, along with business partner Jay Miller, helped Riedel develop a higher-end glass designed especially for syrah. Nevertheless, he used glasses from Riedel's Ouverture line - described by the company as its "uncomplicated beginner series" - as he sampled wines during a recent tasting at Bin 604, the South Exeter Street wine shop that he and Miller own.

Foreman, a snappy dresser, says that style figures in the appeal of the well-made wineglass. In part, he says, he likes a particular wineglass for the same reason he likes a particular shirt and tie combination: It pleases him.

Drinking wine is, after all, an experience that appeals to the senses, Foreman says. The aesthetic pleasures of holding and using fine glasses fit that motif, he adds.

Innovation has come to the tradition-bound world of wineglasses. Eisch, a German manufacturer, has a line of glasses that "breathe." A wine poured into the glass, will, the company claims, show the same signs of aeration as a wine that has been decanted and aerated for one to two hours.

Parker said he tried the Breathable Glass at an event at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley and was impressed. It seemed to work, Parker said, even if he wasn't sure how. "My theory is they have tiny holes in the glass that trap the wine and aerate it," he said.

Parker had a less-welcoming view of stemless wineglasses, such as the O tumbler designed for everyday use by Maximilian Riedel, chief executive officer of the company that bears his family's name. "I hate them," Parker says, "for aesthetic reasons. ... I guess I am too traditional. I think wineglasses need a stem."

Foreman, on the other hand, loves the stemless glasses and uses them at his Pazo restaurant. He likes the feel of the glass in his hand. When he arrives home late at night, he says, he often warms up a dish of, say, braised fresh ham with greens that his wife, chef Cindy Wolf, has left for him, and might pour himself a red wine like a Premier Cru Volnay, holding it in a stemless pinot noir glass.

My journey into the world of fine wineglasses made me examine my sipping life and take a hard look at what is on the shelves of my cupboards.

I spent an hour or so watching myself in the dining-room mirror as I drank wine. I was checking to see if I lowered my head when I drank from a wide-open glass and if I tilted my head back when I sipped from a glass with a narrow rim.

Head movement, I had read, delivers the wine to various taste zones of the palate. That is what the folks at Riedel say their studies have found.

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