An ostentatious vintage goblet might look appealing, but it is actually a terrible way to taste wine. ‘The classic goblet is straight-sided, conical, and flares out, because that’s the easiest way to drink,’ says Martin Turner, Business Manager at Riedel, the company famed for creating a vessel to match every grape variety. ‘But this shape is the worst thing for wine, because tasting is all about smell.
‘Your tongue has a fairly basic five-point system, so you’re actually just confirming what you have smelled. In this kind of glass there’s no way of containing the aromas, and you certainly can’t swirl the wine; you’re doing nothing for it’. A good wine glass will always taper in at the top, to help enclose the aroma.
As a general rule, rather than making assumptions based on colour, it is best to consider the overall style of your wine when choosing a glass. Sebastian Holian, an educator at Liberty Wines, has some advice. ‘Imagine you’re taking a photograph,’ he says. ‘A large, balloon-shaped glass is like a panorama, whereas a smaller, bowled glass wants to zoom in for a close-up.’ The narrower container concentrates subtleties and keeps liquid cooler for longer.
This is great news for neutral whites such as Pinot Grigio or Muscadet, but also suits lighter reds such as Beaujolais and Valpolicella. ‘I will often serve these kinds of reds in a white-wine glass, slightly chilled, but I’d prefer a larger, more open glass for flavoursome whites such as oaked Chardonnay or premium Viognier,’ says Holian.
Farther along the spectrum are large, heavy reds that are high in tannin. ‘This is a component found in grape skins and oak barrels that causes a drying sensation in the mouth,’ Holian explains. ‘Red Bordeaux blends, Barolo, larger Riojas and Malbec all benefit from a big bowl because the larger surface area means more contact with air. The oxygen breaks down the tannin and makes the wine softer and easier to drink.’
The shape also provides enough space to enjoy a complex bouquet, which might be condensed and badly expressed in a narrower vessel.
‘The idea of drinking Champagne from a coupe might be romantic,’ says Christie’s Junior Wine Specialist Charles Foley, ‘but the large surface area means you lose all of your bubbles almost instantly. Of course there’s the lovely idea that the glass was modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breast, and it looks great in a Champagne pyramid, but beyond that I wouldn’t recommend using it.’
‘The coupe was developed because the French found their Champagne much too lean, with too much acidity,’ explains Turner. ‘They would even put pieces of sponge cake in the bottom to soften it up and make it more palatable!’
The saucer-shaped coupe was followed by the flute, which was designed to be stable on a crowded drinks tray. Unfortunately, this long, thin profile means that the first sip often offers nothing but an onslaught of bubbles. It is also much more conducive to being ‘knocked back’ without proper consideration to bouquet or taste.
For these reasons, many experts now favour drinking champagne from a standard white-wine glass. Riedel, for its part, has developed a Champagne-specific alternative. ‘Maximilian Riedel [11th-generation CEO and current president of the company] has declared war on the flute, and hopes everyone will follow suit,’ reveals Turner.
‘During a tasting at Christie’s we will only use a few different glass shapes with long, elegant stems — you don’t want to complicate things,’ says Foley. ‘I’d choose a large bowl for a Burgundy or a Pinot Noir, and a funnel shape for a claret. You’ll also have a different option for a port or sherry.’
It also makes sense to choose your glassware based on your own spending habits. Turner’s advice is to ‘spend on one glass what you’d spend on a bottle’, which is why Riedel’s entry-level pieces are the same price as a reasonable supermarket wine. ‘We can’t make a bad wine good, but the right choice can make something taste the best it possibly can.’
‘For wine appreciation a glass has to be unadorned, well-balanced and as thin as possible,’ Turner advises. ‘A thin rim adds to a good delivery, meaning your wine will arrive on the right area of the palate. A heavy pub glass with a horrible rolled rim does exactly the opposite.’
Technicalities aside, the sign of a great glass is that it isn’t noticed at all, because everything is working in your favour. ‘A light glass enriches the experience, because it's less of a distraction. You want as little as possible between you and the wine.’
Traditionally a glass’s stem has been considered vital for preventing heat transference, encouraging overall balance and adding aesthetic value. For years Riedel agreed, but in 2004 it released its first tumbler — a shape normally reserved for cheap table wines. Although many purists were shocked, others pointed out that this was the first good, storage-friendly wine glass you could take on a picnic.
‘It’s a great casual alternative with a lesser risk of breakage,’ says Turner. ‘Wine lovers are still going to choose a good bottle when they’re in the park or having a TV dinner, so why not cater to that?’
But what about suggestions that stem-free designs makes the wine more susceptible to being warmed? According to Turner, ‘That means you’re drinking too slowly!’