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September 16, 2007

This Glass Is for the Cabernet, That One the Pinot Noir


YOU’VE mastered the intricacies of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barossa, and pride yourself on choosing the perfect wine to complement a meal, whether it’s Asian fusion or a hearty hanger steak. Perhaps you even have a storage unit or, if you’re lucky, a cellar, to store wine at the proper temperature. But is your glassware still from the Chianti-in-a-straw-bottle age?

Wine consumption has grown in the United States, along with an appreciation for the character of varietals, from classics like cabernet and chardonnay to less familiar names like Grüner Veltiner, a peppery Austrian white, and malbec, a mellow red grape from Bordeaux that has played a starring, solo role in Argentine wine.

So it is not all that surprising to see that glassware has followed suit. Today, wineglasses are increasingly designed to showcase the character of specific varietals.

The theory is that the design of the wineglass — from the shape of the bowl and degree of tapering at the rim, to the design of the rim itself — can affect the way someone experiences the aroma, taste and harmony of a wine. The nuances of a complex red wine, for example, might unfold and beguile in the appropriate glass, but turn harsh and closed in another.

Indeed, according to many wine professionals, the right stemware can mean the difference between savoring a luscious wine and feeling shortchanged.

“It really does make a difference,” says Shaun Green, a buyer for K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco.

The idea of matching stemware to the specific type of wine was pioneered by Riedel, an Austrian company that has been making glass for 250 years. “You have to have the perfect messenger to deliver the wine,” says Maximilian Riedel, president of Riedel Crystal USA.

It was Mr. Riedel’s grandfather Claus who created the first line of wineglasses in different shapes and sizes designed to enhance the character of specific types of wine. In particular, his Sommelier series, made of handblown, unadorned lead crystal, started the trend in the 1970s. They came in different shapes and featured much larger bowls than typical for the time to allow more space for the wine’s aromas to collect.

The Sommelier line, which sells for $60 to $95 a stem, is among the most popular high-end glasses sold today. Max’s father, Georg, popularized the idea further with the introduction of the Vinum line of machine-made glasses (around $20 a stem) and a series of tasting seminars to promote them.

Other glassmakers have followed suit, and a dizzying range of options can be found today in stores, from inexpensive models to fine crystal goblets costing more than $100.

Bottega del Vino Crystal, owned by the restaurant of the same name in Verona, Italy (and more recently New York), sells mouth-blown, lead-free crystal in six styles: for young, medium-bodied and big reds, concentrated wines known as Super Venetians, chardonnay, and sweet wines. Last year the winemaker Robert Mondavi, in collaboration with Waterford Crystal, introduced a line of varietal-specific glasses that sell for $50 a pair. Riedel’s models have proliferated as well, with glasses designed for drinks as diverse as single malt whiskey and Oregon pinot noir, a new glass. In addition to the high-end Sommelier line and the Vinum line, there is a basic line for novices called Ouverture ($10 a stem).

Do wineglasses make such a difference? And if so, how many are enough? I attended a Riedel seminar held recently at the company’s New York showroom to see for myself. It was led by Max Riedel.

We started with a typically full-flavored California chardonnay, from Kendall Jackson. In Riedel’s Vinum Chardonnay glass, notes of tropical fruit wafted up and expanded lusciously in the mouth. We transferred the wine into the Vinum Sauvignon Blanc glass, where it seemed to lose depth. Creamy oak and vanilla overpowered the other flavors. It also seemed unpleasantly tannic.

Finally, we poured the chardonnay into a “joker” glass — those miserly little wineglasses that you can barely fit your nose into. In this glass, alcohol burned on the nose, and the tropical fruit disappeared.

A surprised murmur swept through the room.

“Chardonnay needs a bigger bowl for its depth of flavors and alcohol,” Mr. Riedel said. The Chardonnay glass also directed the flow of wine to the desired part of the tongue, he said, adding, “The first impression is key.”

This little test was repeated with a pinot noir and a cabernet sauvignon, both from California, to the same effect. The audience, down to a person, was persuaded.

The seminars have created many believers. “When Riedel first came out with the idea, I thought it was a bit extreme,” said Tim Kopec, wine director at Veritas, a New York restaurant known for its wine list. “But after experiencing it for myself, I fully bought into it.” And the critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has written that the effect of Riedel “glasses on fine wine is profound.”

Others dismiss it as more marketing gimmick than science. The notion that a glass can pinpoint the flow of wine to the tongue “is ridiculous,” says Ted Allen, the wine expert and TV personality. Joshua Wesson, chairman and executive wine director of Best Cellars, a chain of stores that specialize in quality wines under $15, believes that a glass can have some influence on wine, but not as much as other factors like temperature. People fall prey to a sort of “placebo effect” when doing a guided tasting like the one I attended, he said.

Even if my taste buds could be believed, there is still the more pragmatic concern of just how many wineglasses one can afford, much less find room for. “The selection of stemware should not be a neurosis-inducing exercise,” Mr. Wesson says. “Most wineglasses, if shaped appropriately, do a fine job.” Even the most ardent advocates say there is a limit.

Many wine pros say that most people can do fine with three sets: a big-bowled basic glass for reds, a smaller-bowled basic for whites, and a Champagne flute (a flute preserves bubbles best). “If you’re really cramped for space, get one general purpose glass and call it a day,” advised Mr. Allen, who is also a spokesman for Robert Mondavi Private Selection.

The important things to look for in a general purpose glass are a decent-size bowl that allows you to swirl the wine and stick your nose in (since smell accounts for much of what we think of as taste), and clear, unembellished glass or crystal.

The answer ultimately comes down to individual tastes and lifestyles. “If you’re an avid wine drinker, making an investment in four or five styles of wineglass is a very small investment that pays many dividends,” Mr. Kopec says. At Veritas, five versatile glasses from Riedel’s Sommelier line handle most of his needs.

For those who have the storage space, like to entertain, or are regularly quaffing Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, nothing is more elegant than a handblown crystal goblet, like Riedel’s Burgundy Grand Cru model. This generous glass can hold an entire bottle of wine (although experts recommend pouring just four ounces at a time to leave plenty of room to swirl and aerate the wine). When clinked — always at the widest part of bowl, lest they break — they give off a deeply resonant tone that sounds like church bells.

“They really look beautiful,” says Ron Ciavolino, director of wine studies at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “But some idiot usually knocks one over and you’re supposed to laugh like you don’t care.”



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