Quick Sips — 11 May 2012
Does a wine glass make the wine?

A wine or spirit’s taste may depend on the glass you drink it from


About 75 people sat at long tables in a banquet hall of the Perry South Beach. Set before each one of us was the same quintet of wine glasses in various shapes and sizes. Behind the glasses stood two clear plastic cups: one holding white wine, one holding red. Between the cups rose a large red cup (empty) and, to the side, stood a small bottle of water (full).

The collection seemed to suggest an upcoming magic trick, and, indeed, in his introduction, Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, informed us that the man we had come to hear was “like a magician. Every time you think he’s not going to fool you this time, and yet he does.” The reason for his success, Matthews explained, was that what he did had nothing to do with illusion.

Then Maximilian J. Riedel took the stage, elegant in a dark suit and an open-collared dress shirt. He spoke with the authority of someone whose family has been making wine glasses for 11 generations. (Riedel Crystal was established in Bohemia in 1756.)

So it seemed odd that he started off with the water. He asked us to pour a third of our water bottle into the first wine glass (the shortest of the five, with the greatest rim diameter) and a third into the second wine glass (slightly taller than the first, with the smallest rim diameter of the five).

Then, to demonstrate how the glass is “the tool, the communicator” of the beverage it holds, he asked us to drink first from one glass and then from the other. And, amazingly to some of us, there was a difference. The first glass, Riedel explained, “spread the message of the water.” Drinking from the second glass was not nearly as good, and swigging from the bottle was the pits. “The water dries out your mouth,” Riedel said, “the minerals are taking over.” I vowed never to drink, if possible, from a bottle again.

When you thought about it, it made perfect sense: The contours of a container determine the way the liquid enters your mouth, which is strategically placed with taste buds and other sensory surfaces. (It’s why drinking from a water fountain, even ice-cold water on a blisteringly hot day, is always in a way unsatisfactory.) What’s more complicated, and challenging, is discovering which specific shapes and sizes bring out the best qualities in different types of wine.

We started with the white, a 2010 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay, pouring it into the first glass again (a chardonnay glass) and then into the second (a Riesling/sauvignon blanc glass). Just by smelling, Riedel detected a difference. In the proper glass, he registered notes of “tropical fruit, crème brûlée, tangerine, roasted pineapple.” While in the second glass he got “more of the alcohol, not as much fruit.” It occurred to me that there are people, especially here at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, who would pay good money to have Maximilian Riedel’s nose.

Then we tasted. The chardonnay glass “transfers the wine to the center of our palate,” Riedel explained, while the second glass delivered it “to the tip of the tongue.” The second glass made the wine taste sweeter, deprived it of the balance it had had in the chardonnay glass, and gave it a shorter aftertaste.

We moved on to the 2008 Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz. Riedel went on educating, while the rest of us continued to swirl, smell, taste, and marvel at the revelatory power of a glass. l


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