Saturday, 23 December 2006

Life is too short... drink good wine out of bad glasses. (Georg Riedel, owner of the renowned Austrian glassmakers)

Unlike Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways, I have never drunk a stupendous wine out of styrofoam cup. I'd like to think that if, by some strange turn of fate, a rare and valuable bottle came into my possession, I'd have the presence of mind to pour it lovingly into delicate, hand-blown crystal. (I'd also like to think that I would never drink any wine out polystyrene, but I've leaving options open in the event of an otherwise perfect picnic.)

While possessing some basic standards, I had never been that particular about my wine glasses. Relatively recently, I become the joint user of some quite decent entry-level ones. And I accepted, at least in principle, the idea that good glasses could improve the experience of drinking even modest wines. Yet given the type of wine I tended to purchase, and the fact that my palate is--to put it kindly--late-blooming, the acquisition of serious crystal was not a high priority.

My boyfriend thought otherwise, however, and the last night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, was thus marked with the unveiling of two Riedel Bordeaux glasses, constructed (partially by hand) out of lead crystal. Poured into the capacious bowl of the new glasses, its aromas coaxed to the specially-designed rim with a twist of the wrist, our simple little wine (a £6.50 costiere du nimes purchased at middle England's favourite retailer, Marks & Spencers) practically exploded with new and more powerful scents. On the nose, there were dark berries and hints of spice and wood, alchemising into something almost three-dimensional. The effect on the tongue was likewise; tastes were bolder, the finish longer, new backnotes (including a previously undistinguishable hint of eucalyptus) identified. To be fair, I didn't pick up on that last element myself. But it was clear even to me--as a comparison between old and new glasses soon confirmed--that something about the design of these glasses pushed our just a bit nicer than everyday bottle well in the direction of "serious" wine.

A brief investigation into what I might label as the Riedel effect (not all drinking, mind) broadly buttressed our anecdotal findings. According to the experts, there are several justifications for matching a wine or grape style to a particular shape of glass. Most importantly, it would seem, the design of the bowl can be calibrated to maximise the bouquet, or aromas, of the wines. In a study conducted by Kari Russell, a student of food science at the University of Tennessee, merlot developed particularly desirable concentrations of a particular phenol, gallic acid, when poured into a broad bowled glass which narrowed towards the rim. (It should be noted that the comparison was made with martini and champagne glasses, not those designed for white wine or another red variety.) More generally, it would seem, a large bowl allows for adequate aeration (particularly important with tannic or well-aged red wines), while a tapering tip (such as that used in the narrow sauvignon blanc glass) pushes aromas towards the nose, often balancing out high levels of acidity.

A further factor in glass design is the attempt to control how and where the wine is tasted. The shape of the glass, combined with that of the rim (a cut rim is considered preferable to a rolled one), can help ensure that each sip is directed to a ideal point on the tongue, balancing receptors for acidity, sweetness, saltiness and bitterness.
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Perhaps it's too soon for presents, but if you were thinking of sending some Pomerol, be assured that it would be drunk out of the proper glasses. And wherever you are, and whatever you will be drinking tomorrow night, I wish you a Happy New Year and look forward to more posts (and indeed more readers) in 2007.


Josh said...

Late bloomer? Surely you are too modest.

I will go to my favorite wine bar tonight in a minimalistic celebration of New Year's. No Riedel glasses, unfortunately. Have a happy new year yourself, although I note that it is already past midnight in London.

Shira said...

Not too modest, I'm afraid. My book knowledge and my tastebuds are years, if not decades apart.
Happy New Year to you too!
Do you have a favourite at your local?

Josh said...

I see you have gone to the other side, spelling words the British way.

I had a Spanish red called "Mano a mano", which comes from Tempranillo grapes in La Mancha. Pretty good for ten dollars. The winebar's website is at