It's awfully frou-frou to drink out of expensive stemware. Like donning designer clothes, there's something higher-than-thou yet fun about using them. But are these novelties all "brand" and no brains? Companies like Riedel and Spiegelau swear their ultra-thin, specially designed crystal glasses make the wine taste better, but they have to justify the $8-$20 per glass price tag, right? I wondered, so I put them to rigorous, unscientific testing by a group of novice and snob tasters, making the glasses put their muster where their marketing is.
But first some background and wherefore.
In the '60s, Claus J. Riedel theorized the size and shape of a glass could conceivably emphasize a wine's good points, rather than its faults. Each varietal, from chardonnay to cabernet, has a different flavor profile that Riedel believed could be improved using a specifically shaped glass. These glasses aim the wine to hit the tongue's "sweet" spot — factoring in the sour-, sugar-, salt- and bitter-sensitive areas. To shed some light on this idea, think about how your head is positioned while drinking from different shaped glasses. To drain wine from a tall, cylindrical champagne flute, you tilt your head way back. This makes it hit a certain area on your tongue. On the other hand, using a big-mouthed glass, where you have to tilt your head less, will direct wine to a different spot. Armed with this information and using an army of experienced wine experts, Riedel designed more than 20 wine glasses.
Riedel has many copycats. Spiegelau, the main competitor, boasts a smaller but equally as fine-tuned set of stemware. For my experiment, I mostly used Spiegelau, since they cost half to one-third the price of Riedel. The wine varietals were all over the board: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, syrah, syrah/cabernet blend, merlot, malbec and many Italian varietals. The "control" glasses looked like the ordinary, thick-walled, small-bowled sort you'd get free at an inexpensive wine tasting.
The results surprised most of us. Suspicious of all that is marketing, I went in as the ultimate doubter, and came out a believer. We found that using specialty glasses didn't improve the white wines as much as the reds, but the Spiegelau did calm the acids in many of the whites. Even so, we discovered the glasses couldn't work miracles. One French chardonnay was so offensive, "even the glass couldn't save it," said Randy. Bob called the wine "Charred—onay," since the Spiegelau actually accented the wine's over-oakiness.
Reds in the fancy glasses tasted remarkably more complex, aromatic and fruitier. Whereas an ordinary glass can fragment the fruits and tannins, with the Spiegelau, as Marty aptly noted, "you get the whole balanced experience from the beginning."
For the nose part of the wine tasting, the expensive glasses minimized the rubbing alcohol smell found in many bold reds, and accented more of the fruit. Andrew found "the wine's aroma was stronger in the cheaper glass, but rounder and more mellow in the Spiegelau."
This test made me a Spiegelau convert. If you think about these glasses as an investment in your future wine enjoyment, the cost works out in the end, possibly transforming your $6 beast into a beauty.
Kendall Jackson 2001 Vintner's Reserve Merlot Well balanced and screaming with upfront fruit like currants and black cherry. A tiny bit over-oaked but worth checking out. $16
Graffigna Don Santiago 2000 Malbec Tulum Valley Like biting into real fruit like blackberries and black cherry. Elegantly smooth tannins, with a sultry, lingering finish. $15
Talomas 2001 Syrah/Cabernet Central Coast A voluptuous wine, bursting with cherry, roses and lavender. Begging for spaghetti and meatballs in a spicy red sauce. Really. $14