Kiss My Glass: The Science of Stemware

When I was growing up, my Italian grandpa always drank wine from a small, squatty glass. In fact, I don't think he owned a single glass with a stem. This seemed perfectly functional to me at the time; the squatty glass held plenty of wine and it was hard to knock over, even when Grandpa was gesturing wildly with his hands (which was always).

Dad drank his nightly wine in the same sort of vessel, though my family did own some "regular" wine glasses that Mom dusted off for special occasions. Unlike my family, I was partial to the fancy glassware. I loved the long graceful stems and pretty sculpted bowls — though I didn't see their purpose, other than to look nice.

Turns out, we were all wrong about wine glasses.

I came to this realization last year, when I attended a "stemware tasting" put on by Riedel, a 300-year-old Austrian glass company. According to these folks, wine tastes and smells better in the right type of glass — theirs, of course. Believe me I was skeptical, but in the spirit of open-minded experimentation (and free-flowing wine) I put my doubts aside.

Three Riedel glasses of different shapes and sizes were placed in front of each taster, along with one standard wine glass. Sauvignon Blanc was poured into the standard glass first, and we were invited to make comments about the wine's aromas and flavors. Everyone agreed it smelled mostly of alcohol and tasted sharply acidic. When we poured the same wine from the standard glass into the Riedel glass, I expected the same experience — but it wasn't. Pleasant citrus aromas suddenly materialized, and the wine's flavors were much more balanced. At first I figured it had to be a fluke, but from Chardonnay to Zinfandel, each wine we sampled tasted better in the Riedel glass.

What the hell was this all about?

It all started in the '60s, when Claus J. Riedel discovered the size and shape of a glass affects aroma and taste perceptions. In an effort to share his discovery with the world, he created a special series of glasses designed to emphasize a wine's good points, rather than its faults.

Without getting into too much science, here's how the concept works. Most of us have heard that we taste salty, bitter, sweet and sour flavors on different areas of the tongue. Based on this theory, Riedel designed glasses to direct the flow of liquid to the "taste zones" that will make the wine taste best.

To get a better understanding of this phenomenon, think about how you position your head when drinking from different types of glasses. For example, when using a tall, skinny champagne flute, you tilt your head back in order to tip the wine into your mouth. With a wide, deep glass, you tend to lower your head. These movements influence where the wine hits your tongue.

To determine which shapes are best for each type of wine, Riedel recruits winemakers to participate in tasting workshops. So far, the company has created 20 different wine glasses, each designed to bring out the best in a particular type of wine.

Of course, Riedel isn't the only game in town. The Wine Enthusiast catalog at has its own line of Riedel-inspired glassware, which costs considerably less than the real thing, as does Germany's Spiegelau Crystal. Prices range from $5 to $80 per glass.

If you suddenly feel inspired to replace your current glasses with more "scientific" ones, here's a bit of advice: Don't go overboard. Buy one set of red wine glasses and one set of white wine glasses, according to what you drink most often.

And if you don't feel like buying new glasses, it's no big deal. As my grandpa would have said: Wine in a paper cup is better than no wine at all.

Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail [email protected], mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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