A Lesson in Varietal-Specific Glassware from Maximilian Riedel
Until tonight, I considered my stemware to be little more than a beautiful vessel to hold my favorite wines. In just three sips, Maximilian Riedel (ree-del) has made me a believer in the ability of glassware to completely frame and alter the wine-drinking experience. I could guestimate that I have at least a dozen different styles of glasses in my home, ranging from the tiny, free models earned during my winery tasting sessions to the $100-a-piece Master Sommelier monstrosities I was generously given as a wedding gift. While I knew all of these must have some sort of impact, I generally adopted a mentality of “the bigger the glass, the better.” Or, I just reached for the first one in the cabinet…
The 11th generation Austrian glassmaker – and current CEO of Riedel Crystal of North America – led me and several dozen other wine enthusiasts through a tasting seminar at City Winery in Chicago and turned us all into bona-fide stemware snobs.
We were each provided with three glasses from the brands’ Vinum XL line for Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon along with three corresponding young wines:
- Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (2010)
- Justin Winery Syrah (2010)
- Faust Cabernet Sauvignon (2009)
The Pinot Noir glass was large and shaped like an inverted bell, with a pronounced outward curve of the lip. The Syrah glass was narrower and more egg-shaped, while the Cabernet glass was sleek, enormous and much like the glasses you likely have at home. Mr. Riedel acknowledged that most wine drinkers opt for the latter style when drinking any varietal of wine but explained that for anything other than cab (or Bordeaux grapes), the resulting flavor will be bitter, sour and acidic. At this point, I was still giving the courtesy nod, but remained curiously optimistic.
Then, we began to smell and taste each wine and my mindset dramatically changed…
First, we were asked to simply smell each clean, empty glass to gain an appreciation for its neutrality. (This is key! So often, people store glasses in the open where they can take on the taste of food while it’s cooking or even a moldy washcloth during rinsing. Make sure your glasses are neutral.) Next, we poured the chilled Pinot Noir into each of the three glasses to experience the difference. (This was his second tip – serve wine at less-than-room-temperature to play up the fruit and minimize the alcohol and acidic flavors.) We initially swirled the appropriate Pinot glass and smelled a delightful bouquet of sweet red fruit, cranberry, cherry and spice. Moving on to the Syrah glass, the nose changed to mineral and dried fruit notes. And, the huge Cabernet glass completely swallowed the wine, delivering little more than a blank, almost gasoline-like scent. As you can imagine, the resulting tastes flowed in a similar pattern. Now, we all wondered why.
As Mr. Riedel noted, the DNA of a wine really does dictate the shape of a glass needed to effectively deliver its message. The composition of our tongues and tastebuds also drive this. We tend to taste sweetness on the very front and tip of the tongue. Salty, acidic, bitter and yeasty tastes hit the middle while the back is best for grasping tannic and bitter wines. Believe it or not, these glasses each delivered the first taste of wine to different parts of the tongue based on the way they are structured. He likened this to capturing a profile picture. The first sip gives us the critical first impression of whatever we’re consuming and the message spreads from there. This made each first sip as drastically different as the aroma tests. Glassware, in essence, can serve as a loudspeaker for wine, amplifying its desirable strengths. The same thing happened with the Syrah and Cabernet in each respective way.
We then tried the Syrah in a small clear plastic party cup. How many times have we had to resort to this at a party or even a wine shop? While the plastic has absolutely nothing to do with the taste, the coned, megaphone shape does. Wine truly needs the egg shape of a glass and a narrow opening to concentrate the aromas and flavors. There was absolutely nothing coming out of this cup.
What really impressed me is the thought the Riedel’s put into the development of each glass. He cited that the Syrah glass we were using was the hybrid result of extensive “focus group” testing among Syrah makers from around the world. They each taste wine from 12 potential glasses and narrow to three or four they like best. The company then blends the designs into one that meets all of their preferences.
To conclude, we were given a square of 70% dark chocolate and the bold Cabernet and asked to take a bite of the candy but not to swallow it. We then took a sip of the cab and swallowed together, which tasted just like a chocolate-covered bing cherry. This is the art of food and wine pairing. (Of course, this result was not replicated when trying the same thing with the Cab in the two incorrect glasses.)
While all of this won’t justify me running out to buy a new glass for each varietal I drink, it does make me appreciate that the shape of a glass does impact the perception, flavor and aroma of each wine. Fairly frequently, we open a bottle we loved at a winery and dump it out thinking it tastes “off.” (Yes, wine can become corked, but I’m not convinced these occasions could be attributed to this.) Now, I will at least try it in a couple other glasses before coming to that conclusion. And, I’ll take better care of the glasses I have. If you’re curious Bed, Bath & Beyond and other retailers do sell the Riedel Vinum XL tasting set should you wish to try this at home.
A few other glassware and wine tips from Mr. Riedel
- Decant wine for at least one-to-two hours. As someone who drinks young wines, I was happy to hear that the blend of decanting, glassware and proper storage could mean drinking young successfully.
- Miele dishwashers are really the only brand intended for wine glasses. All others should be hand-washed or at least washed alone without any other heavy items inside.
- To clean a decanter, soak it in soapy water for 24 hours and rinse it clean. Then, dry it with a hair dryer.
- Plan to invest in one glass as much as you would spend on an average bottle of wine.
He also said Napa wineries largely serve wine in appropriate Riedel glassware which is perhaps one reason why it tastes so good when we’re there – kudos.
Photo courtesy of Riedel USA and Crystal Classics.