The Right Glass Can Make a Difference
Of all the variables that can alter the taste of a wine, the least understood — apart from magnetic fields! — is undoubtedly glassware. In fact, conflicting information exists about whether glassware makes any difference at all. Companies such as Riedel Crystal design glasses specifically to enhance certain types of wines, and yet articles such as the one which appeared in Gourmet Magazine last August claim that no scientific evidence exists to support the idea that the shape of the glass affects the wine’s taste. If you discuss food pairings, serving temperature and aeration time with your customers far more than you mention glassware, it’s no surprise.
I actually did this experiment once: I poured a tablespoon of wine into a glass and tasted the wine; then I tasted the same quantity of wine directly from the tablespoon. From the glass, I had the impression of having more wine in my mouth than I did from the tablespoon. The glass made a difference. Despite the lack of scientific proof — and despite my utter inability to explain the operative mechanism — I know from experience that for wine, the delivery system affects the perception of the product.
Of course, the perception of wine is completely subjective, and the differences that I perceive in a wine when I taste it from two different glasses are not necessarily those that another person might experience. (For that matter, when I describe the taste of a wine, I cannot know whether others tasting that wine with me are actually experiencing the same sensations as I am.) Also, the differences can be subtle, and thus can evade those who taste quickly.
Much of the discussion of glassware seems to revolve around a wine’s aromatics — the volatile compounds that form the aromas and flavors of a wine. Tasters might comment that the aromas and flavors are more intense in one glass, or fruitier, while in another glass they’re more subdued. For me, the more interesting differences in a wine tasted from two different shapes of wine glasses are in the wine’s structure — how the glass affects the apparent weight and texture of the wine, and the perception of alcohol, sweetness, acidity or tannin.
At home, after choosing what I think will be the right glass for a particular wine, I sometimes switch to a different glass after tasting the wine. My rule of thumb is this: If the wine tastes too big, too loosely-knit, too high in alcohol or too soft for my taste, I opt for a glass with a narrower bowl, such as a classic Bordeaux glass. Conversely, if the wine tastes too tight, too dense, or inexpressive, I bring out a glass with a wider bowl, such as the classic Burgundy shape. Likewise, I choose a smaller glass to make the wine taste more compact, and a larger glass to make it seem more expansive. Sometimes, my husband and I each drink our wine out of a different type of glass because our tastes differ.
Is it just the power of suggestion that I find a wine leaner in a narrower glass — as if the “shape” of the wine in my mouth mirrors the shape of the glass? Maybe. But if so, the reason is irrelevant, because my perception of the wine does in fact change.
Try experimenting with different shapes yourself. If you agree that the glass shape affects perception of the wine, share that with your wine-savviest customers — those who will find the issue more fascinating than complicating. Glassware theory is unscientific and inexplicable, but it just could enhance your customers’ enjoyment of a wine.
Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW is president of International Wine Center, a NYC school for wine professionals. She is also executive director of the internationally recognized Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) programs for the U.S., and co-author of Wine For Dummies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.