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The importance of glasses

By Nick Alabaster

It may sound a bit fussy, but undoubtedly one of the most important factors affecting the taste of the wine is the glass it is served in. Nick Alabaster emphasizes the importance of correct glassware if you are going to get the best out of the gems in your cellar, and makes some recommendations about what to buy if you are looking to experiment with stemware.

If I had to name the single most important factor affecting my enjoyment of a wine it would be the glass it is served in. Perhaps I would have to exclude here the condition the wine is in, but even the perceived quality of a wine can be profoundly effected by the glass. I would certainly count the type of glass above the effects of maturity, serving temperature, accompanying food and even the situation it is served in, i.e. a meal with friends or at a tasting, all of which have an undoubted effect on the impression of a wine.

Give someone both a Mouton '45 out of a tumbler and a Clerc Milon '93 out of a fine, large bowled crystal designed for Bordeaux and there's no question the Clerc Milon would provide the greater sensory reward, both on the nose and ultimately I contend, on the palate.

In fact, the glass tumbler is effectively afflicting the taster with a heavy cold through which the wine can never really express itself to the senses.

Two critical aspects of glassware can be improved immensely without any outlay on expensive stemware. No matter how good or poor your glassware is, keep two things in mind. The glass must be utterly clean. Just a hint of washing residue, dust, taint from strong tap water chemicals or a wipe from a dish cloth can render a glass of wine lifeless, tainted or possibly very unpleasant. You should always rinse glasses near to the day of use, preferably just a few hours before. It's amazing how dusty or musty a glass can become with just a short time in a wooden cupboard. As a test I suggest frosting a glass with warm breath and smelling the glass after a week in a cupboard. You can pick up elements such as dust, mustiness and chemical cleaners remarkably clearly this way. Any sign of taint and this will be imparted into the first glass of wine. I'm embarrassed to say I've returned one bottle of wine thinking it was affected by cork taint, only to find out later that it was my to be my water filter which had imparted a musty taint to the glass (presumably the filter was mouldy).

My preference is to not worry too much about cleaning the glass after use. I'm more interested in cleaning glasses just before use. I wash and rinse in hot water, stand upside down on a smooth surface to drain and then stand the glass up to dry. I always follow this up with a small sacrificial pour from the first bottle and rinse this round the glasses. I try to make this pour last more than one glass although a small pour for 8 glasses isn't practical as you could be spreading taint. This process was a pain to start with, but now it's a natural part of serving wine for me. If you ever need to remind yourself why you should do it you should try smelling/drinking the first pour which has mopped a residue of washing up liquid!

The second point which you should consider with all glasses is the fill level. The best glasses are supposed to be filled no more than a third full going by the height of the bowl. Generally this will also be the widest part of the bowl. Poor glasses are those which require filling almost up to the rim for a generous measure to be served. Even these glasses can provide a slight area for nosing if they are only half filled. It's better than nothing, but still frustrating knowing the most of the wine's aroma is simply going to be lost. Presumably with some pub wines, which are inevitable served in these sort of glasses, you are better off with no nose to speak of!

There can be barely a wine out there that is at its best from a wide, flared glass. Almost all well designed glasses work off the tapering tulip like form, focusing the wine's aromas and concentrating them for the nose. Many drinkers are happy drinking out of the ISO standard tasting glass on a daily basis. These small, compact tulip-shaped glasses are the standard for the tasting room as they have the desired effect of concentrating the aromas but for me, only young port is well served by them. My preference would be to step up the overall size of the glass if not change the shape, as many wines become far more expressive this way. A larger bowl allows for better evaporation and also seems to allow better integration of aromas rather than letting them fight it out with your nose practically filling the glass's opening. A larger glass also allow you to breath in the layers of aromas a good wine will offer you. Near the top of the glass and often well above it will be the most volatile aromas, and breathing in slowly while moving your nose towards the wine's surface will often change the pattern of the aromas.

One thing an ISO glass doesn't allow you to do well is drink a wine with almost your whole face immersed in the glass. There's nothing nicer than taking a slow deep breath through you nose while tipping back a good measure to really make an impact on you senses; I find the ISO glass allows only adequate nosing and at the expense of the whole drinking experience.

I had no idea what an impact the right glass could have on a wine until I tried young vintage port out of the Riedel port glass (not unlike a crystal version of the ISO tasting glass). The firm tannins are seemingly rendered harmless and the overall effect was an utterly delicious, hedonistic bowl of black fruit liqueur -- yet a traditional small liqueur glass offered nothing more than a gagging mouth of tannin and spirit.

I have so many different shaped glasses I don't think it would be of interest to you if I explained the rationale for each of them. However, I encourage everyone who hasn't already done so to experiment with different glasses with the same wines and come up with their preferences. Some glasses are outrageously expensive and so fragile that many people, especially those with young families, wouldn't feel comfortable with them. But I recommend checking out the Sommelier range from Riedel (stocked by John Lewis, Harrods and many fine wine shops). The look and feel of these glasses alone seem to come some way to justifying their price. The huge Bordeaux glass does offer a different experience to the machine made versions which are smaller and sturdier (see below), however I'd be misleading you to say they offer a better experience all the time. They do not. The nose is softened by the huge bowl and opening and many wines are simply lost in them. It's a case of some you win, some you lose. Again, it's for each individual taster to decide which they prefer. Differences can be found between the hand blown Syrah glass and the machine made Shiraz glass from Riedel. Again, the glass that seems superior with one wine won't necessarily be the preferred choice with another. Some glasses have a small turned-out lip at the opening. I've tried these glasses and they come with the explanation that they are better at subduing acid, especially with young wine. I'm not sure it's any more than just a slight softening of the impact of the nose which in turn softens the wine's effect on the palate though; but I agree they do make a difference. I feel it's the over-riding effect of the nose that can make a huge difference to the wine experience and have such a profound effect on the overall taste sensation.

The explanation revolves around the idea of the 'tongue map'. Many texts suggest differing palate sensations, such as sweet, sour, bitter are picked up by some areas of the palate more so than others, one example being that acid is felt more acutely at the tip of the tongue. However, more recent study has showed this to be fallacy and in a way I'm glad. I've sat there on my own with lemon, salt and sugar while dabbing different parts of my tongue! But could I discern any difference between the effect of salt or lemon on the tip or side of my tongue? -- could I hell! It's equally strong and unpleasant no matter where you put it ! Maybe, just maybe, I could go along with idea that the edges of the tongue are more sensitive than the top. But maybe that's the overall effect of salivation, sides of the cheeks and everything else besides the sensitivity of the tongue itself.

Anyway, all I say is never underestimate the powerful effect of the glass on the overall enjoyment of a wine and try and experiment with a selection if you haven't already. You'll be amazed at the differences and if you're anything like me, will believe all good wine needs deserves the right glass to be served in.

Good wine glasses on the market

This is a limited selection of glasses available in the UK that I can recommend for those seeking out new glassware.

The range of glasses from Spielgau in Debenhams offer a good selection for anyone interested in trying the well accepted forms but at everyday prices. From between 5 and 7 a glass (often available at four for the price of three), the range starts with a white wine glass and basic red wine glass (both of which I find too small for my liking - I prefer the water wine glass for chardonnay and other big white wines and lighter reds such as Beaujolias). Better are the larger Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses at 7 each. Also the range has an interesting young wine glass with a turned out lip with the aim at softening youthful acid.

Of all the various Edinburgh crystal available, I can only recommend the Everyday Champagne flute. Elegant, without pattern and tapered and often around 5, this is my current favourite for all champagne styles.

Cheaper tulip shaped glasses in two sizes are available in Spoils. Glass, not crystal but good for some situations (e.g. outdoors, larger parties or if you're having trouble justifying a whole set at much higher prices) and around 2 a glass.

Alders also have a few nice glasses. I found a version of the Burgundy glass with the turned out lip. The Riedel version costs around 45 but this slightly smaller version I found gave me change from 10.

And last, but certainly not least, the Riedel range. I know some people are annoyed at the extensive range (almost endless, it has to be said) and price tags, but no one is forcing you to buy these glasses! I for one love the range and but regret not being able to buy sets of 8 each at up to 45 a glass! Anyway, the Vinum range is machine made, very robust (I've only lost one port glass and that was because I knocked it off the table onto a hardback book!), dishwasher proof (if only used occasionally as scouring has been known to occur with some solvents over time) and prices are from around 8 for the terrific port glass to 13 for the Bordeaux. I'd recommend the Burgundy, Shiraz and port glasses, and Bordeaux if you don't mind paying 13 instead of 7 for the similar shaped but ever so slightly chunkier version from Debenhams. They do a lower priced range, the Overture, but overall this compromise brings you into the 5-7 mark and the glasses themselves compromise the wines you serve in them. I'd spend my money on the Riedel Vinum copies I have to say. And on to the ultimate glassware, the Sommeliers. Hand blown, beautiful to look at, to feel and use (albeit with some trepidation at times!), they can sometimes (and only sometimes) take the wine tasting experience up another notch. However, at around 40 each it's a real extravagance. If you are tempted, as I have been, you should have no regrets buying either the Bordeaux or Syrah glass. The Burgundy glass is so huge, and to be honest more expensive than only one or two bottles of Burgundy I own, that I haven't succumbed. I'm sure true Burgundy lovers though, feel the same way about that glass as I do the Syrah and Bordeaux versions and feel it's worth buying, owning and using.

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