A glass is a glass is a glass (or is it?)
By Lily Millot
On a recent trip to my favorite homegoods stores to replace a broken wine
glass, I was taken aback by the overwhelming selection that filled the shelves.
So many shapes and sizes, some with stems, some without, from thick-lipped
to far-too-fragile. Some were tall, some were short, others were “supersized”– much
too large for my meager kitchen cabinets. I soon grew dizzy amid the crystalline glow,
and I longed for the simple days when the option was for one of only two different
styles – red or white, and I could simply choose something that matched my décor.
I left the store confused, and without a glass. Since I believed that there’s nothing more that could possibly enhance my enjoyment of wine, I went home and did a little wine glass research. Just what were all of these shapes for and what would they do for my senses? Here’s what I found:
There are many reasons why wine glasses come in different shapes, but before we get into the “stems” (which can also be “stemless” these days), it’s important to understand the characteristics of some basic wine types and the way we taste. Apparently wines have needs too, and the way a glass is shaped will help bring that wine directly to the part of your palate where it will be most appreciated, to different taste sensors on your tongue. There are four basic glass shapes that will enhance your tasting pleasure, and most all are tapered with a narrower opening at the top than at the bottom. A good wine glass should have a bowl large enough to swirl the wine to allow its flavors to evolve and to release its bouquet. (All important for your olfactory senses, which, when combined with the initial contact of the wine on your tongue, transmit a message to your brain where it leaves a lasting first impression – all in a fraction of a second) For this reason also, most experts agree a wine glass should never be filled more than 25 percent.
So here are the four basic shapes:
Red Wine Glass: This is a fuller and rounder glass with a large opening, so more of the wine’s complex flavors and aromas come into contact with air. Within this category is the Bordeaux-shaped glass for wines like Cabernet and Merlot. This is a taller glass, but not quite as round, that allows the wine to proceed to the back of your mouth so you can fully appreciate its flavor and body. Then there’s the Burgundystyle glass that has a larger bowl than its counterpart. This glass brings the delicate flavors of lighter-style reds like Pinot Noir to the tip of your tongue. Here in the Hudson Valley, you might use a Bordeaux-shaped glass for Cabernet Franc whereas Baco Noir or other hybrid blend may fare better in a Burgundy-shaped glass.
White Wine Glass: Typically this is a more narrow, U-shaped glass that helps maintain a white wine’s cooler temperature. Again they come in a few styles – a straighter, taller one for serious whites, like a mature oaked Chardonnay. This style allows the wine to hit the back and side of your tongue. For younger whites, like a Riesling or Gewurztraminer, you’d want one with a larger opening so the wine hits the tip of your tongue and you can appreciate its residual sugar.
Sparkling Wine Glass: This is easy – they are upright and narrow to capture the effervescence and flavor of the wine.
Dessert Wine Glass: Dessert Wine Glass: This is a smaller glass that directs a small serving of wine directly to the back our mouth, so the sweetness doesn’t get overwhelming.
Of course with the popularity of New World wines, and the accessibility of more European varietals, manufacturers have designed a glass for almost any type of wine, but suffice it to say these basic four should keep you covered – especially if you’re tight for storage space.
Now, as for how thin a glass should be...For optimal wine tasting, crystal glasses are best since they offer minimal distraction to appearance, taste and color. Those with a polished cut rim, rather than a thick rolled rim, allow the wine to flow more smoothly to your tongue. What size should a glass be? Red wines require large glasses, and those with extra capacity (the “supersized” versions) allow you to “nose” through the layers of the wine’s bouquet easier, through the top fruity layers to the earthier and more alcoholic notes below. White wines require medium-sized glasses, and spirits need small ones to highlight the fruit character and not the alcohol.
Stemmed or stemless? For a casual look, and for the clumsier wine drinker, stemless are a good option. But I prefer to see the wine’s color and clarity without my fingerprints obscuring the view. And then there’s the added issue of warming the wine with the heat of your hands if you are not holding the glass by its stem. Remember, although shape is important, a glass cannot function optimally unless the wine is served at the correct temperature.
These basic wine glass tenets, however, are not always universal. For instance, in some villages in France and Italy you may see wine being served traditionally, in small, simple water glasses – no fancy shapes, no crystal stems – just a glass. And that, I believe, is the only time when a glass is truly a glass.
So back to the store I go, armed with my newfound knowledge and confident that now I can opt for something functional... and pretty...
Freelance writer Lily Millot, a design professional by trade, and avid wine drinker with a thirst for knowledge by choice, is filling in while Susan Valentine is on summer hiatus.