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Choosing Good Wineglasses

Fine Cooking Issue 35
Photo: Judi Rutz;
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Try a quick experiment: pour the same wine into both a juice glass and a wineglass and then taste the wine from both. You’ll likely see that the shape and size of the wineglass both function to show off the wine’s color, aromas, and flavors much better than the juice glass does.

Here are some guidelines for picking good-quality wineglasses so you get the most out of the wines you like to drink.

Anatomy of a wineglass

• The lip should be cut and polished (rather than rolled or beaded), which more smoothly guides the wine to your palate.

• The bowl should be uncut, uncolored, unetched glass to give you the best look at the wine’s color. It should hold at least 12 ounces.

• The stem should be long enough to grasp comfortably and so you can swirl the glass easily. (Holding the glass by the bowl doesn’t just leave fingerprints; it can also warm the wine.) The stem shouldn’t be so long so that the glass topples easily.

• The foot should be wide enough to provide good stability without appearing large or bulky.

Uncut and uncolored

All good wineglasses have key features in common.

A wineglass should be made of clear, untextured glass. Examining and appreciating a wine’s color is impossible with ceramic, colored, etched, plastic, or patterned stemware. Those cut-glass goblets you got as a wedding present may be beautiful, but they’re not the best for picking up on a wine’s subtleties.

Glass is fine; crystal is better. The surface of crystal is relatively coarse compared to glass, which is slicker. Crystal’s surface actually “grabs” the wine, making it trail down the sides of the glass more slowly after you swirl. Thus, alcohol evaporates more slowly, so aromas take longer to dissipate. The wine stays on the surface longer, so you get to enjoy more nuances, and you get a better look at the wine’s “legs.” I also prefer crystal because even when ground quite thin, its lead content makes for a glass that feels heavier and more substantial in your hand.

Speaking of lead, in spite of well-merited health concerns, wine doesn’t stay in the glass long enough for any lead to leach in. And in the last ten years, crystal manufacturers have greatly decreased the overall lead content in crystal.

The glass should give you room to move. If a wineglass is too small to swirl, the odds of spilling wine on yourself, on your tablecloth, and even on your date are pretty good, and what fun is that? You should never completely fill the glass, of course, but a good-size bowl gives you room to swirl, and it gives the wine room to show off its aromas.

The glass should feel balanced and comfortable in your hand, and it should feel stable when you set it down.

Basic wineglass shapes

Wineglasses tend to fall into a few major shapes. According to research by Georg Riedel, an Austrian glassmaker who has thoroughly analyzed how wine acts in the glass, wine aromas stratify: wine’s lightest, most fragile aromas are floral, fruity ones that stay near the rim. In the middle come green, earthy aromas. The heaviest aromas are wood and alcohol, which stay near the bottom.

Flutes are best for Champagne and other sparkling wines. The slender, attenuated bowl shows off a good sparkling wine’s tiny bubbles as they leave thin, wispy trails, and the narrow opening focuses the delicate aromas of the wine. At all cost forego the sherbet-shaped affairs you see in 1940s movies set in swank Manhattan penthouses: those “saucer” glasses allow a sparkling wine’s precious bubbles to dissipate all too quickly.

Tulip-shaped glasses work well with dry white wines, such as Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. Like the flute, a tulip’s relatively straight sides accentuate both the nose and the fruit of a dry white wine. When you drink the wine, a tulip also leads it to land in a narrower area, at the tip of your tongue, which is where fruit flavors are best perceived.

Balloon-shaped glasses are for highlighting red Burgundy and other Pinot Noirs. Top-notch examples of these wines arguably possess the most delicate, complex, seductive aromas found in any wine, and this glass’s rounded sides and generous shape give those aromas lots of room to develop. Also, drinking from  a balloon glass requires more of a backward head tilt, which lets the wine land slightly further back on the tongue. It’s a question of millimeters, but I find that a balloon glass deposits the wine at a place on your tongue where areas in which you perceive fruit and herbal, earthy flavors start to merge.

Chimney-type glasses are right for full-bodied red wines such as red Bordeaux and other Cabernet Sauvignons. The large bowl and straighter sides focus the rich fruit flavors of a robust red wine while not overly accentuating the wood and tannins on the palate. (Most tannins are perceived at the back of the tongue, and a chimney glass places the wine at the front of your tongue so you’re not overwhelmed by tannins.)

To simplify, choose an all-purpose wineglass

If you don’t want your cupboards filled with a broad array of stemware, your best move may be to choose a good allpurpose glass. (I taste a lot of wine for work and pleasure, and I own dozens of different wineglasses, but I tend to use the same glass nine times out of ten.) The most useful all-purpose wineglass combines the balloon and tulip shape and holds 12-to 15-ounces. With this hybrid, you can use the glass for a range of wines.

For my money, Riedel Crystal of Austria makes the finest stemware around, from highend  to inexpensive enough for everyday drinking. The glasses are delicate, but they bring out the most in any wine. Riedel’s Overture series flute, white wine, and red wine are terrific, and they’re reasonably priced ($8.75 each). The Overture red wine is my favorite all-purpose glass, and I use it for everything from Sancerre to Zinfandel to digestifs.

Another good all-purpose glass for everything from delicate whites to robust reds is Spiegelau’s red wineglass. The entire Spiegelau stemware line offers exceptional value. All the glasses are about $10 each; I recommend them highly.

Schott-Zwiesel’s Herald red and white wineglasses are a great combination of sturdiness and elegance, and they sell for about $7.50 each.

To shop for wineglasses, try Marjorie Lumm’s (www.wineglassesltd.com), K & L Wine Merchants (www.klwines.com), or The Wine Enthusiast (www.wineenthusiast.com).


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