Saturday, 18 August 2012

The perfect wine glass

A few weeks ago, I was asked, as a winemaker, to comment on these questions: How important or otherwise it is to have the ‘right’ glass for a specific grape variety? Are expensive wine glasses worth the money? Is there a simple, standard glass which we could use at home? Is glassware a subject which interests winemakers?

Not only does the booming wine market in Hong Kong bring in more wine from different parts of the world, it also attracts glass producers from left right and centre. Riedel and Baccarat have been in the market for a long time and now we also have newcomers Lucaris from Thailand and Plumm from Australia. Do we really need to have ten different shapes of wine glass at home to enjoy our collection from Chardonnay to Cabernet?

While we can drink wine from any vessel, a suitable one should be odourless so you can smell the aroma, colourless so you can access the colour and age, clean with no residues of detergent otherwise legs or tears will be created along the side of the glass. It should not be too thick as that might distort the clarity. Thin-edged glass also helps create a finer stream of wine that runs across our tongue. A stem would be nice for holding the glass so you don’t warm up the wine unintentionally. The ideal shape is a tulip—a rounded bowl to aid swirling without spilling and releasing aromas, and an inward-sloping wall to trap the aromas. Any glass that fits these criteria will do. In fact, you can see that most wine glasses in the market share these features.

It is true that the same wine may smell different in different glasses because of the order in which the aromas emerge, but this is only on the initial impression. Some suppliers insist that different shapes direct the wine to the optimum position on our tongue where we can taste the most of the wine. I think these claims are exaggerated as our tongue only has four senses: sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. When we sip a wine, we let it flow around in our mouth. We think we can taste more because the aromas rise to the back of our nose to the receptor that handles the sense of smell. Our brain then interprets the smell in conjunction with the taste and touch impression from the mouth, leading us to believe we can taste citrus, strawberries, spices, and so on. I have attended several glassware tastings and to be honest, I find the differences insignificant.

To quote Michael Schuster, an expert wine taster and author, 'I don’t believe (the glass) affects the way we perceive a wine’s most important attributes after the initial attack. ie. texture, aromatic interest, length across the palate and the qualities and persistence of the finish. My wife Monika and I use Riedel stemware because it is the most beautiful range available to the wine-lover, but the limited selection we have is chosen on the basis of shapes and sizes we like, rather than on what we are likely to drink.' I believe this sums things up nicely.

To get the most out of a wine, it should be poured to more or less the widest part of the glass so the most aroma can be released and trapped for us to smell. Pour too full and there will be no space to trap the aroma.

One thing I would like to address is the habit some people have of swirling their wine. The bigger the glass, the more violently they swirl. This is a big mistake as all the delicate aromas will be gone after 30 seconds of vigorous swirling. Smell the wine first and only swirl a little if it is ‘closed’. The most delicate aromas can only be detected on the first sniff and without swirling. Unfortunately, too many people swirl the wine before even the first sniff. Try it yourself: take two glasses of wine; swirl one vigorously like those ‘professionals’ for 2-3 minutes; then compare its aromas with one that has not been swirled.

About 10 years ago, the standard professional tasting glass was the ISO glass. It has the ideal shape and it is small enough for a tasting portion. All wineries I visited at that time, from Stellenbosch and Barossa to Mendoza and Napa used ISO glasses. Today, they are using bigger glasses thanks to the marketing efforts of the manufacturers. But they still only use one shape for all their wines. Most critics agree that Riedel’s Chianti glass (or similar shape from other brands) is the best all purpose glass. It is important that if you are comparing and contrasting wines and varieties you should serve them all in the same shape of glass so that no wine has any apparent advantage or disadvantage—just as in a professional wine judging.

So to answer the question: no, it is not essential to stock a whole range of expensive wine glasses. Nevertheless, wine is for enjoyment, and the shape and elegance of the glass can enhance the aesthetic experience. It is like having a nice meal with the best chinaware and silver cutlery. The plates and forks do not make the food taste better but they make for a positive impression. But be careful when handling your glasses: I once broke three Riedel glasses in a row after dinner and it hurt!

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 17th May 2012

1 comment:

  1. Basically, how much you want to spend on wine glasses and get the ones that you think are the nicest among those that fall within your budget.

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