The Venerable Wineglass

By Posted on Dec 23 2009 | By

Take a sip of spring water, iced tea, coke, juice or even beer. Does it matter if your container is a bottle, a cup, a can or a tumbler? Not really. The enjoyment of those beverages will be about the same regardless of the vessel they’re drunk from.

Choose Your Vessel Wisely

Choose Your Vessel Wisely

Now pour quality wine into any of those containers and sip. Wine from a plastic bottle? A coffee mug? A foam cup? An aluminum can?  Ewe.

Not to put too fine a point on the question, but doesn’t wine seemingly desire the comfort of a wine glass to bring forth all its allure? Of course.

Wine glasses today are the culmination of hundreds of years of evolution and range in cost from a few dollars to over a $100 apiece.

From its earliest development as a favored beverage, wine drinkers almost instinctively sought unique containers to sip their precious liquid from. Starting with animal horns and then evolving to receptacles of leather gourds, clay pottery, shaped copper, silver, pewter and gold chalices, wine vessels sought to showcase the special libation contained therein.

In 50 AD, Pliny the Elder, a noted author and scientist of his time, recorded that glass was emerging as the esteemed vessel for holding wine. Glass was one of the most advanced technologies in Roman times and was rare and expensive.

It would be centuries later, however, before the wineglass achieved broad practicable use. The vessel was perfected in Venice, Italy around 1000 AD and two centuries later, Venice had evolved into the glassmaking capital of the known world. Venetian glass artisans slowly spread across Europe introducing the vessel to the rest of the globe.

In early 1600s, commercial glass production exploded in England. English glassblowers perfected a sturdier type of glass and another major wine advancement occurred when the wine bottle began being produced on a wide scale. With the advancement of manufactured glass, both the wine glass and the bottle catapulted wine to greater popularity.

There are three components to a wine glass: the bowl, the stem and the foot. The design evolved to emphasize important aspects of wine enjoyment. The bowl captures the aromatics, and the stem offers an unobstructed view of the liquid while keeping fingerprints and body heat away from the wine. The base provides a sturdy platform upon which the libation can rest without fear of a tumble.

There are four basic designs with many variations; each is shaped to showcase a particular type of wine.

Champagne Glass: Tall, narrow and elegant looking, the shape helps emphasize the bubbles upward circulation, a key element in the visual and tactile enjoyment of a sparkling wine. The narrow bowl also limits air contact, reducing the oxidizing effect while keeping the wine cold, an important characteristic for champagne’s enjoyment.

wine glassesWhite Wine Glass: The design is tall and somewhat narrow with a smaller “tulip” shaped mouth to preserve the crisp, clean flavors of white wines. The shape affords more protection from oxidation and somewhat restricts the ability to swirl, a function less necessary than with reds. The shape of the bowl also directs the wine toward the front of the mouth, enhancing flavor perception.

Red Wine Glass: A larger bowl increases the ratio of wine to air providing for greater aeration and thus oxidation. The wider bowl also facilitates swirling that releases more aromas and flavors and directs the wine to the back and sides of the palate, an area of the mouth better suited to experiencing red wine flavors.

Dessert Wine Glass: This glass is smaller in size so as to direct the wine toward the back of the palate, reducing the sweetness perception, which is greatest at the tip of the tongue. Since these wines are usually higher in alcohol, the smaller size also telegraphs the need to reduce consumption and sip slowly while the dessert is being enjoyed.

The amount of wine poured in a glass should range from one third to one half. Greater amounts reduce the aromatic impact since the bowl does not have sufficient space to retain the easily volatilized aromas.

Most average glasses are made of simple glass. The more expensive vessels are crafted with crystal and are quite thin. The thinner the bowl the more pleasure that can be derived from the wine since there is more wine to mouth contact, lessening the feel of thick glass resting against the lip. Unfortunately, these beautiful, thin and expensive glasses are also very susceptible to breakage. To address this concern, some manufactures today produce elegant glasses fused with super-strong magnesium that create a highly durable, break resistant receptacle.

Unlike commercial wineries, personal glasses should generally be free of designs and etchings to better display the wine.  And, when made of crystal the romantic and gentle “ring” of two glasses meeting in the harmony of a toast brings even further enjoyment to a dining experience. To entertain dinner guests during a lull in the conversation, take a drop of wine and apply it to the rim of a crystal glass. Then firmly rub the entire top edge of the bowl with the tip of your index finger several times. In a moment or two you will hear wine angels softly singing. Sweet.

One of the most well known producers of high quality wine glasses is Riedel. The firm has a storied tradition dating back to its founder, Johann Christoph Riedel, born in 1678 in Northern Europe. For eleven generations his family has produced exceptional, hand blown crystal stemware. The glasses—with dozens of different styles available—are designed to direct wine to specific areas of the mouth and have been proven in blind tastings as having the ability to showcase the best attributes a wine has to offer.

IMG_2054_2Robert M. Parker, Jr., an internationally acclaimed wine critic and also known as the Emperor of Wine states, “The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by Riedel. The effect of these glasses on wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.” Of course, that profound experience can cost over $105 per glass, so let’s hope it does take us to places we have never been wine-wise before.

If the expense of investing in quality stemware seems extravagant, consider purchasing a couple of all-purpose, crystal glasses. Such stemware is available beginning in the $15 apiece range. Then, test the impact of your favorite wine in both a simple wine glass and the more expensive crystal one.

Much effort goes into the hunt for a reasonably priced bottle of quality wine. Make certain you are extracting all the pleasures therein by sipping your prize from a quality wine glass.  The vessel matters.


Published in the Culpeper Times December 23, 2009.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES