Raise a glass

This article first appeared in James Halliday’s Wine Companion, 2012
Tyson Stelzer

The world of wine glasses is more complex than ever, but it doesn’t have to be daunting.

Just how much difference can a wine glass make?

“We may work for ten or twenty years to create Krug Grande Cuvée and ship it in the best
refrigerated container, but if it’s served to you in a stupid flute you could miss 99 percent of the
pleasure and the message,” declares Olivier Krug, sixth generation director of the fabled champagne
house of Krug.

Olivier’s pursuit of the ultimate wine glass led him to recently commission wine glass manufacturer
Riedel to create a glass specifically for Krug Grand Cuvée. Over a full year, Riedel put twenty-six
prototypes to Olivier before he settled on a design. “I would take each one home to test with my
wife until very late at night,” he reports.

Olivier is the first to admit he’s obsessive, but if small tweaks in a finely crafted glass can make an
impact, how much greater the difference between such a glass and the chunky, squat goblet at your
local family restaurant? It may sound like marketing hype to suggest that a great glass can improve
the taste and smell of a wine. But it makes a far greater difference than most people imagine.

Every year, Riedel wows crowds at workshops by pouring the same wine into one of its glasses and
a smaller generic glass. It’s an easy party trick to try at home (try comparing every different glass in
the house). The surprise comes perhaps not in that there’s a difference, but that there’s a world of

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of having high quality glasses for wine tasting and
drinking,” states James Halliday, who purchased his first set of Riedel glasses in 1969. His first
encounter with the full Riedel range came in Tokyo in 1990, alongside noted British critics Michael
Broadbent MW and Hugh Johnson OBE. “We were all dumbfounded at the way the different glasses
impacted on a given wine,” Halliday recalls.

What makes a great glass?

There’s more to a terrific wine glass than just looking smart and feeling balanced in your hand. It’s
true that the finer the glass, the better it looks at the table, but there’s a more important reason:
wine will warm up more when you pour it into a thicker glass. Look for a glass with a cut rim, as a
rolled (rounded) rim can disrupt the even flow of the wine into your mouth.

Aroma communicates something like three-quarters of the information about a wine, according to
Riedel Australia’s longstanding Managing Director, Mark Baulderstone. This is why the best wine
glasses are designed primarily with bouquet in mind. By curving in slightly at the top, a glass is able
to capture and focus a wine’s aroma. To fully appreciate the bouquet, you want to be able to get
your nose into the top of the glass, so look for glasses with a sufficiently wide rim.

A comparative tasting is a compelling case for the ability of a great glass to not only make a wine
smell better but – amazingly – taste better, too. Or at least taste different, and, with the right wine
in the right glass, hopefully increase its enjoyment. How? In short, we’re not entirely sure. “We’re
all still naïve on this question,” admits Baulderstone. “The scientific world can’t agree definitively on

how the tongue works.” He proposes any perceived difference in the taste of a wine is purely due to
the way the glass delivers its aroma, influenced by the way the shape of the glass allows for air flow
in and out as you sip. “Sip from three different glasses and hold your nose – they will all taste the
same,” he suggests.

I suspect there’s another factor at play here, too. Certain parts of our mouth are more receptive
to sweetness, acidity, bitterness and tannins than others, with perception to sweetness most
pronounced at the front of the tongue, acidity along the sides, and tannins along the sides and inside
the cheeks. There is dissention as to whether this is real, perhaps because the level of perception in
different parts of the tongue varies from person to person. But tenth generation Riedel front man
Georg Riedel accepts this profile of tongue taste zones, and it does help to explain how different
glasses can emphasise or de-emphasise specific characters like fruit, acidity and tannin.

A narrow champagne flute is a good example, delivering wine to the middle of the tongue, away
from the more acid-sensitive sides of the tongue, reducing the perception of acidity in this high acid
wine. The more rounded rim of a pinot noir or chardonnay glass delivers wine across the tongue,
well suited to these lower acidity varieties.

Do I need a different glass for every grape variety?

The balance of aromas, flavours and textures of a particular variety can lend it to one glass over
another. “It’s not simply a matter of big glasses for red wines and small glasses for white wines,”
Baulderstone explains. “The more you learn about wine, the more complex it becomes, and the
same is true of wine glasses. There’s a difference between glasses to suit cabernet, shiraz and pinot.”

The aroma of pinot is a key example. “Pinot noir is about soft aromatics and lighter fruit expression
than shiraz and cabernet,” he points out. “The goal is to have these fruit notes sitting on top and the
earth and oak elements sitting behind. A glass that highlights these other elements can make the
wine look out of balance.”

This is all further confounded by the vast diversity of wine styles manifested by a single variety. “A
shiraz from America at sixteen percent alcohol is a completely different beast to a French shiraz,”
points out Schott Zwiesel Brand Manager, Michael Carrie, who advocates matching a glass to a
particular body and age of wine rather than a single variety.

Even Riedel’s vast array of varietal specific glasses needn’t be overwhelming. “You only need to think
about the wine varieties you like, which aisle you frequent in the wine shop or what’s in your cellar,”
says Baulderstone. “These are the only glasses you need.”

But it doesn’t even need to be this complicated. I don’t know anyone with a different glass for every
variety they drink. A sensible starting point is a red wine glass, a white wine glass and a champagne

Baulderstone admits that the glass manufacturers love splitting hairs on different designs, but
ultimately it’s all about creating a better experience. “Let us worry about the details so you can get
to the fun part!” he says. I’ll raise a glass to that.

Clear as Crystal: Ten Wine Glass FAQs

1. How do I choose a champagne flute?

The more I visit and taste in Champagne, the more I appreciate the way a large glass draws a
sparkling wine out of itself. Champagne holds its bead longest in an elongated glass, but don’t
choose one that’s so narrow you can’t get your nose in to appreciate the bouquet. Some in
Champagne, like Duval-Leroy Sales Manager Michel Brismontier, even serve their wines in normal
wine glasses instead of flutes. “It’s not just about the bubbles, champagne is a wine, not just
scenery!” he declares. For a serious bottle of fizz, reach for a tulip-shaped glass, half way between a
flute and a fine white wine glass. A medium-sized white wine glass will do the trick, too.

2. Is the champagne “coupe” any good?

Yes, but only for serving desserts! The large surface area of the traditional flat champagne “coupe”
evaporates both bead and aroma rapidly. The wide, flanged rim spills the wine to the sides of the
tongue, where sensitivity to acidity is heightened.

3. Are plastic “glasses” worthwhile?


4. Is the ISO XL5 tasting glass dead?

Almost. I still keep a few boxes on hand for two reasons: fortified wines and picnics. These are my
all-purpose outdoor glass for passing around the family picnic rug – they’re almost indestructible and
hard to knock over.

5. What to avoid?

1. Heavy, chunky glasses

2. Glasses that curve outward at the top

3. A “rolled” (rounded) rim

4. Cut or engraved glass

5. Coloured glass

6. What’s the ultimate wine show glass?

It was James Halliday who rallied Australian wine shows to introduce the Riedel Ouverture Magnum
in place of the old, long-standing workhorse, the heavy little ISO XL5, which he describes as “little
prisms, robbing the wine of its soul, its aroma, its texture and its structure”. The Magnum is now
the benchmark used by every major Australian wine show, widely hailed as a key factor in the
improvement of the show system.

7. Is crystal all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes. Riedel makes some glasses identical in shape, size and thickness and reports that lead crystal
out-performs non-lead in aroma every time. Wine sticks to lead crystal better than to glass,
providing more time for aroma to be released on swirling. That said, the difference is minimal and

Australian wine shows generally don’t use lead crystal glasses.

8. How high should I fill a glass?

A wine glass should be large enough that you never need to fill it more than half full. This provides
space for the bouquet to open out, and plenty of room for vigorous swirling action, without putting
unsuspecting passers-by at risk. The rule of thumb is to never fill a glass past the widest part of the

9. How is a new glass born?

In a field as scientific as modern winemaking, it’s surprising that new glasses are only ever developed
by trial and error. In the late 1990s, Georg Riedel realised that the existing Riedel sauvignon blanc
glass might have been ideal for Old World styles, but wrong for New World sauvignon blanc.
After creating a range of designs, Georg sent out sets of six prototypes to 1,000 producers of
benchmark New World sauvignon blanc around the globe, with instructions to rank the glasses.
When a consensus of more than 85 percent came back in favour of one glass, he was compelled to
commence production. Coincidentally, the same exercise with Hunter Semillon highlighted precisely
the same glass.

10. How to wash and polish a wine glass?

“A decent shouldn’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool. It’s got to be used regularly, not just left in
the glass cabinet,” says Schott Zwiesel Brand Manager, Michael Carrie, who wants customers to put
every one of his glasses in the dishwasher.

“All our glasses are dishwasher safe, but they’re not human safe!” quips Riedel Managing Director,
Mark Baulderstone. A glass is most likely to be broken during washing and polishing, “but put it
through a dishwasher and it can last forever,” he says. Riedel recommends avoiding corrosive
detergent blocks, instead using half the recommended quantity of Finish liquid.

It’s paramount that there isn’t the slightest residue of detergent in the glass as this will instantly
destroy the taste and aroma (and the bubbles of a sparkling wine). If you’re washing by hand, do so
gently under hot water without detergent. Polish with a lint-free microfibre towel, taking care to
cradle the bowl as you polish it. Never hold the base and twist the bowl, as this may snap the stem.

Top ten wine glasses to buy

The best glass companies all produce an array of fantastic options. They may even come from the
same factory. Every six or seven years a glass furnace tends to collapse, so there’s an unwritten
agreement between the manufacturers that they will produce each others’ glasses to take up the
slack (for some years, Schott Zwiesel produced the Riedel O Series).

Here are ten affordable favourites:

•Schott Zwiesel Vina Champagne Tulip $12

•Schott Zwiesel Vina 110458 White Wine $12

•Schott Zwiesel Vina 110459 Red Wine $12

•Zerrutti Mini Ultimo White Wine $14

•Zerrutti Ultimo Red Wine $16

•Riedel Ouverture Champagne Glass $20

•Riedel Ouverture White Wine $20

•Riedel Ouverture Red Wine $20

•Riedel Ouverture Magnum $20

•ISO XL5 for fortified wines and picnics $5