Why wine glasses matter

A variety of Doug Paulding's stemware, including Riedel’s Malbec glass (center) and the angular Sophienwald glass, to its right.

So, you’ve chosen the wine for the evening.

You have brought it to proper serving temperature. You have opened it and taken a quick sniff into the bottle. All good. Except your grandmother’s etched glassware that you inherited, which looks festive and pretty with its small bowls and vertical walls, will nonetheless not allow your wine to express itself properly and achieve self-actualization. Proper stemware matters. Riedel makes a specific glass for many of the noteworthy grapes of the world. I was invited to participate on a panel several years ago with several of New York’s “wine influentials” to taste Malbec from a variety of shaped glasses, prototypes Riedel had created to let the Malbec sing. As a group we swirled, sniffed, tasted and eliminated a glass or two in each flight. Ultimately, there was one large egg-shaped, large-bowl, small-mouth glass that was deemed the best shape for Malbec. And similar panels in Miami and Las Vegas came to the same conclusion, although admittedly, Georg Riedel and his son, Maximilian, did their best to influence the outcome.  

And how was this shape chosen? Malbec, especially when young, can be tight and contained. A large bowl allows for generous swirling, spinning and aerating the wine. This is almost equivalent to decanting for the same benefit. I really do not see the need for different shapes for every different grape. I look for an open bowl and smaller mouth to discourage spillage. I look for lead-free stemware. Studies have shown that lead can leach from the crystal into the liquid over time. I look for dishwasher safe. I look for thin walls and a graceful shape. I look for a pleasing tone when I flick the edge of the glass or I clink to seal the deal and complete a toast. And I look for affordability. Glasses will inevitably get broken and it’s not as painful when they were acquired at a good price. 

 Sparkling wines used to be served in short, open shrimp cocktail type glassware that was clumsy and impossible to walk around with without dripping. Then vertical and narrow flute glasses became the trend, because the playful bubbles dance more visibly in them. This type of glass does prevent a hearty swirl, which will keep the wine tight and contained. Again, I prefer an open bowl. I have been to the Champagne region in France and the Franciacorta sparkling wine region in Italy and they have moved to serving their sparklers in more open bowls. The bubble stream tends to be a bit more subdued and sedate but if a tiny, etched mark is made in the bottom of the glass, the bubbles will be focused into a narrow and ascending stream in the middle of the glass. This will give you the properly aerated wine aromas and tastes and the visible celebratory bubbles.

Many of the top producers of wine glasses are now making a stemless version of their vessels. These come in multiple shapes and definitely have their place. Obviously, they are essential for proper wine appreciation on a boat. But they are also helpful for mobile buffet-type parties and events where there is a lot of movement. Stemware is significantly easier to tip and more likely to get toppled. And clean up is quick as the stemless glassware will fit in any dishwasher. The purpose of the stem is to keep your fingers off the bowl itself, which will change the temperature of the wine. So it’s good to put the stemless glass down between sips.

Many years ago a wine friend of mine told me, “Proper wine glass selection can add three Parker points to a wine.” Robert Parker is the famous wine critic, quite possibly the most influential critic in any field in the world. He has been responsible for changing the tastes we are likely to encounter in a wine and changing the industry itself as producers yearn for good ratings. If proper glass selection can add points and improve your wine experience, it can be the best use of your money.  

Many stores and outlets now contain a variety of wine and spirits glassware. I have bought more than decent glassware at Costco for $20 for eight glasses. At another very different price point, Sophienwald makes just a few shapes for all wines. These glasses are stylishly elegant, lightweight and do everything to amplify the wine properly. If you happen to find Sophienwald anywhere pick up a few or a set. Your wine, beer or spirit will taste better and make you happy. Cheers!

Write me at doug@dougpaulding.com.

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