Do Fancy Wine Glasses Make A Difference?
How important is stemware for the enjoyment of wine? Should you invest in Riedel, Zenology, Schott Zwiesel other high-end glasses to be confident you’re getting the most out of your Cabernet, or will discount stemware do?
Unsurprisingly, Georg Riedel absolutely believes fancy wine glasses make a difference. He’s head of the eleven-generation Austrian glass-making dynasty that produces 55 million wine glasses annually. He’s built a global empire selling specific wine glasses designed to enhance your experience with different wines.
Georg Riedel and the author
He speaks passionately of the architecture of a wine glass—the length of the stem, the shape of the bowl, how smaller glasses heighten a wines’ intensity, whereas larger glasses release more aromatic complexity.
“We’re dealing with physics, it’s not hocus pocus,” he tells Vivino.
Not everyone agrees. “I am a non-believer,” says Bob Foster, Director of the Mid-American Wine Competition, and Assistant Editor of the California Grapevine Wine Newsletter. “Originally the idea was that the specific shapes of wine glasses delivered the wine to that part of the tongue that best sensed the particular flavors of that wine,” Foster tells Vivino.
“But this was based on the now discredited belief that certain parts of the tongue only sensed certain flavors.”
“My belief is that what matters is that glasses narrow at the top to concentrate the aromas and that it have a generous surface area for the wine.”
By a Nose (and a Tongue)
How is a wine glass with a very specific shape supposed to make taste wine better to begin with? Tasting wine starts with smell. A human nose has about 40 million olfactory receptors, and the journal Nature reported that the human nose can “distinguish over 10,000 scents.”
Hair cell receptors in your nose respond to molecules floating in the air—perfume, cigarette smoke, the scent of a rose or Viognier. What we smell is a precursor to what we taste, which is why we always smell wine first.
But back to the wine glasses; once the wine enters your mouth, then what? The theory behind varietal-specific wine glasses is that the taste buds on particular zones of the tongue can distinguish four main tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. This “tongue map” dates back to research by a German scientist in 1901.
The original idea of behind stemware like Riedel is that the shape of the glass directs the wine to hit one of these four zones when you sip, enhancing the wine.
Though there are advocates and skeptics of the glassware, and scientists have basically discarded the tongue map. Our sense of taste and smell are far more sophisticated than previously thought. What matters is how you experience wine.
So do a multitude of specific wine glasses help or hurt? Well, wine is in the eye, er, mouth of the beholder. Most people agree that a larger bowl allows more aromas to escape into our nose and a smaller glass, one that tapers, tends to restrict, yet consolidate, those aromas.
“No one believes that a glass can make a difference in the perception of wine,” Riedel says.
“But imagine you’re looking at a vineyard from a specific place. Your view is always the same. But some days it’s foggy, or there’s rain, or sunshine. These things don’t change the vineyard, but how you perceive it.”
And perception is the ultimate reality. Yes, wines glasses have different shapes and sizes. Most are machine manufactured, however there are also expensive hand blown lead crystal glasses. Yes, you can drink Merlot from a mug or Sauvignon Blanc from a stein, but the first rule is to always choose wine you enjoy. It’s up to you what you drink it from, be that a crystal glass, plastic cup, canteen, goblet, flask…whatever, you choose.
Play around with different glasses of various types and shapes and see if they enhance or detract from your experience. After all, it’s your own personal experience that matters most.
What the Pros Think
Ana Diogo-Draper, Director of Winemaking at Artesa, Napa:
- “I suggest a set of glasses for white wines, and a set of glasses for reds. Simplicity. As most things in life, I would go for quality of the glass instead of quantity of glasses (innumerous styles of glasses, adapted to X,Y, Z type of wine).”
Luca Currado, CEO and winemaker, Vietti Wines, Italy:
- “I’m not a fanatic about a specific glass for each variety, but a decent glass does matter. A $100 glass cannot change the quality of a cheap, poorly made wine. A terrible glass can reduce the appreciation of a very good bottle of wine. Average drinkers should care about stemware and have at least one decent glass on hand.”
Tami Wong, Sommelier, The Fishery, San Diego:
- “Proper stemware makes all the difference in enjoying wine, especially when it comes to the aromatics. Taste the same wine from a coffee cup and a wine glass side by side and you’ll see. It is easy and fun to go crazy and acquire a wide range of glasses, but all you really need is one good all-purpose glass.”
TJ Rogers, Chief Winemaking Officer, Clos de la Tech, Santa Cruz, CA:
- “I never thought wine glasses made much of a difference. Sure, I drank Champagne from flutes and not “coupe” glasses, but I used Burgundy balloons for all red wines. Then, I donated some Clos de la Tech to a Riedel tasting and compared different glasses with the same group of wines. It made a big difference and forever changed my mind on the importance of wine glass design.”
Heidi Bridenhagen, Winemaker at MacRostie Winery, Sonoma:
- “I think a glass can make or break an experience. However, it’s a very personal choice and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. It’s not just about whether a glass enhances the aroma and flavor of a wine; there are situational and functional components too. I steer away from stemless glasses as the temperature from your hand accelerates the wine warming up. That said, if all I have while camping is a tin cup, I prefer that to nothing.”