For those of you not wanting to wade through what I’m sure will be a fairly long and technical review of this tasting event the short answer is yes! The shape of a wine glass can have a dramatic effect on both the aroma and flavor profile of a wine depending on the combination of wine and glass used, but not as universally or as specifically as Riedel would have us believe from their advertising. Quality wine making is a an art form with one eye firmly fixed on the underlying science required and I’d argue that selecting the right glass shape to accompany any given wine is like that too… you can use theory to guide your choices initially but after that each wine is an individual and for a region like Bordeaux even vintage variation or maturity level could lead to different glasses showing a given wine at its best… or failing to.
Riedel are Glassware Specialist Company famous for crafting glasses to compliment specific grape varieties and styles of wine; though they also sell a range of artisan decanters and anything else you can think of wine and glassware related. Their products are expensive though and certainly aimed at the premium end of the market. That said if you love wine and find these enhance your enjoyment of it, then the cost is going more than worth it as a luxury treat. The commercial versions of the glassware used for the tasting retail at about £55 a pair (£27.50 a glass), though Riedel do have glasses further down the price scale like their ‘O’ series range of stem-less tumblers that retail around half the price (£25 a pair) yet have the same bowl shape of the ones we used.
But do they work?
I was skeptical to say the least, though I admit to having read accounts of people blown away by the diffrences these glasses can make and wanted to be pleasantly surprised. Imagine enjoying a glass of your favorite wine and then finding out there was a glass out there that would help to unleash even greater levels of awesomeness within it… Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on some? I know I would.
Our glass expert for the evening was Matt Knight from Riedel who efficiently and patiently lead us through a dizzying numbers of wine and glass combinations in the face of some quality heckling and impressive diffrences of opinion!
In all we tasted four wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Oaked Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a left bank Bordeaux), across four different Riedel glass styles and a fifth glass representing a generic restaurant or pub glass.
The glasses pictured here were labeled clockwise from the top left as following:
Glass A – Oaked Chardonnay
Glass B – Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc
Glass C – Old Word Pinot Noir/Nebbiolo
Glass D – Cabernet/Merlot
Glass J – ‘The Joker’ aka Standard pub/restaurant style glass
Our first wine up was a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc by ‘Guy Allion’ 2015 and we started out in Glass B, which makes sense as it’s labeled for use with Sauvignon Blanc. The main features of the glass, highlighted by Matt, were its small bowl shape at the base and its narrow aperture at the rim. These were important for the following reasons:
Bowl Shape: Delicate white wines with light floral aromas need a small bowl shape, as the greater oxidation of the wine that takes place in larger bowl shapes, causes these delicate aroma’s to dissipate and be lost.
Narrow Rim Aperture: High acid wines need to be directed, when poured into the mouth, along the center the tongue. This avoids acid receptors along the sides of the tongue and allows the fruit characteristics of the wine to dominate the palate instead of the tangy salivary response to the acid. A narrow rim aperture naturally directs the wine this way on the tongue.
Now… the bowl shape I could understand as it seemed to make sense, but he lost me when he started talking about ‘shaping the tongue’ in order to drink the wine the right way. That said I was game for anything and following his advise the wine was delicious. It had a lovely gooseberry fruit and floral aroma of elderflower and apple blossom, with fresh green fruit on the palate.
Then we poured the Sauvignon Blanc from Glass B in to Glass A which shape wise is the opposite of Glass B. It has a large round bowl shape at the base and a wide rim aperture. The effect on the wine was startling to say the least! The aroma completely disappeared and the wine was directed naturally across the width of the palate including the sides of the tongue, becoming unpleasantly tangy/sharp and drowning out any fruit except for a hint of lime.
Conclusions: Bowl shape really does seem all-important with this style of wine, get it wrong and you may as well be drinking water. As for the narrow rim aperture… it’s clearly important to help trap and concentrate all those floral aromas and seems to work well in tandem with the smaller bowl shape. But when it comes to directing the wine on the palate, I think it says more about the relative balance or lack there-of of the wine, than it does the glass. An unbalanced wine is still unbalanced even if you can shape your tongue in such a way as to compensate for it. The narrow rim aperture does allow you to chose how the wine is presented on the palate; where as the wider aperture of Glass A makes that choice for you. That said a Sauvignon Blanc of sufficient balance and quality would make that irrelevant, as it would be in balance across the whole palate.
Wine number two was a Stellenbosch Oaked Chardonnay, the ‘Nine Yards’ 2014 by Jordan and we started out unsurprisingly in Glass A this time. The main features of ‘Glass A’ being its large round bowl shape and super wide rim aperture. These were important for the following reasons:
Bowl Shape: A complex wine like a well Oaked Chardonnay needs large bowl shape to provide greater surface area for oxidation, allowing it unleash a full array of aroma and flavor characteristics, that would otherwise remain closed or trapped in a glass with a smaller bowl.
Wide Rim Aperture: A higher alcohol wine such as this not only has enough body weight to naturally balance the acidity, but also a wide array of complexity that needs every inch of the palate to make the most of. A wide rim aperture naturally directs the wine across the whole palate allowing the wines complexity to flourish, where as a narrow rim aperture would naturally bypass the areas of the palate most needed.
This wine was awesome… It was so good I momentarily entertained thoughts of absconding with the bottle and finding somewhere we could be alone! It has tropical fruit, buttercream, roasted almond/hazelnut aromas and the same on palate, with a finish that went on seemingly forever. This is a top quality Chardonnay and though not cheap at £29.50 a bottle its on point for the quality of the wine.
Then we poured the Chardonnay from Glass A in to Glass B, the Sauvignon Blanc glass with the small bowl shape and narrow rim aperture. The wine seemingly closed right back up again and all those lovely complex aromas disappeared, leaving faint citrus fruit and distinct woody oak. On the palate (assuming you allowed the glass to direct the wine down the center of the tongue and to bypass the rest of the palate), the wine became thin and linier and actually magnified the acidity of the wine as the palate was missing the balancing weight of complexity and alcohol.
Conclusions: Again bowl shape appears to be paramount with this style of Oaked Chardonnay, and essential to unlock the rich complexity of the wine. Its aroma is pronounced enough not to need a narrow rim aperture to concentrate the aromas. The narrow rim aperture of Glass B only impacted the wine in a negative way providing your drank the wine in the way we were ‘instructed’ to drink the Sauvignon Blanc. The second you moved the wine around the palate the wonderful complexity and balanced weight came screaming back into focus. We also tried the Oaked Chardonnay in the Glass J, the standard pub/restaurant glass, and found it to diminish the wine in a similar way to Glass B except interestingly not to as extreme an extent… the wine was a little fleshier and not as acidic, both were far cry from the awesomeness of Glass A: a match made in heaven.
Wine number three was a Marlborough Pinot Noir 2012 by Escarpment and we started out in Glass C, which has the same large bowl shape as Glass A but with a narrower rim aperture, though not as narrow as Glass B. These were important for the following reasons:
Bowl Shape: Though Pinot Noir is a lighter grape variety it’s primarily a fruit dominant one and the wider bowl shape enhances and brings forward the fruit aromas in the wine, in the same way that it drew out the rich complexity in the Oaked Chardonnay, both need the extra surface area for oxidation to show at their best.
Medium Rim Aperture: The medium width of the aperture is to get the best of both worlds. It needs to narrow enough to help trap and concentrate the delicate aromas of Pinot Noir but be wide enough to allow the wine to access the whole palate still.
This was my joint favorite wine of the night! It had a ripe strawberries and cream aroma that opened up into a rich raspberry coulee with fresh red fruits on the palate and with an earthy leafy quality and a long juicy finish.
Then we poured the Pinot Noir from Glass C into Glass D, the Cabernet/Merlot glass that had the same width of rim aperture as Glass C but a slightly narrower more conical bowl shape. The wine lost most of its fruit intensity as if it closed back up again and vegetal aromas came to the fore. We also tried this wine in Glasses A & B, both of which muted the wine in slightly different ways. Glass J reduced it to dish water.
Conclusions: As Glasses C & D have the same width rim aperture I can only assume any difference had to do with the width of the bowl shape and the degree of aroma retention. It just goes to show how aromatic a grape variety Pinot Noir is, that any reduction in access to that aroma so fundamentally undermines the whole balance of the wine.
The last wine of the evening was Bordeaux from the Medoc, Chateaux Le Pey 2012 and we started with Glass D, which as described above has the same rim aperture as Glass C and bowl shape that while wide is not as wide as Glass C and has a more conical shape to the bottom. These were important for the following reasons:
Bowl Shape: Wide enough to allow for good oxidation but has steeper sides than Glass C that allow a wine with a less aromatic profile to consistently present itself. A wider bowl would present a heightened sensation of alcohol that would pull the wine out of balance for some.
Medium Rim Aperture: Same as Glass C, it’s the best of both worlds.
There was a seductive concentration of Black and Red fruit to this wines aroma with Blackberry/black cherry on one side and redcurrant/strawberry on the other. The fruit forwardness did die down considerably on the palate though, leaving an earthy soil minerality to dominate the remaining black fruit presence.
Then we poured the Bordeaux from Glass D into Glass C, the Pinot Noir Glass and there was a slight muting of the aroma as if it was struggling slightly concentrate within the volume. On the palate, however, the fruit that disappeared from Glass D showed up again. This was by far the most divisive Glass selection of the night… I found myself enjoying the aroma from Glass D in one hand and drinking from Glass C in the other. Sorted!
In a way you could argue that Glass D accurately highlighted the quality level of this entry-level Bordeaux, thereby showing its shortcomings. Knowing that Glass C’s bowl shape would heighten the fruit profile of a wine allowed us to compensate for this particular wines shortcomings, even though a little more patience is required to build aroma levels.
Overall Impressions: I was impressed with how effective these glasses are and what a difference they can make. I was mindful though of the extreme nature of the wines tasted, that most wines would likely fall somewhere between them most of the time. In fact the Bordeaux is probably a good example of the confusion likely between glasses. The basic principles underpinning Riedels work seems solid to me; it’s the universal nature of their application that I question. There glasses are not as variedly specific in the way they advertise, though they are largely stylistically specific.
What you have is a range of glasses with varying bowl shape and rim aperture that will mute and or heighten different component aspects of a wine, such as the balance of acidity, level of fruit, forwardness of alcohol etc. In my impression it’s too simplistic and misleading to point these glasses at different grape varieties; after all how does knowing the grape variety reveal the level of alcohol to you? Or how long a wine was aged in oak for a whether it’s was new or old world? Is this bottle of Sangiovese young and fruit forward or is it mature with a fully developed aroma profile and very little fruit?
What we have with these glasses is a flexible range tools to use once you’ve tasted a wine and know what you’re dealing with. Understand the principles underpinning how any why they do what they do and with four or five of them at your disposal, you’ll be able to make the most of any wine you come across… of course that’s an investment of couple of hundred quid!
One thing this tasting did make abundantly clear to me, was that the average glasses used in restaurants and pubs do no favors for wine at all, unless you happen to choose a wine that suits them… in which case you really are better off ordering the cheap table wine to go with your food as it’s likely to be so middle of the road that it’s effectively ‘glass-proof’.
Thank you for reading and please let me know your thoughts… I need all the feedback I can get over here.