A Sommelier's Take on the Supposedly Perfect Glassby Courtney Cochran
As a little girl I believed that, really truly, Cinderella's glass slipper was made just for her. Not only had she gone through all that heartache and pain before finally getting her chance with the prince, she had such a perfectly tiny foot it seemed like destiny that she'd wind up not only wearing the shoe, but wed to the dashing guy.
Fast forward about 20-some years to last night, when I found myself seated
in a comfy conference room at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, thinking
not so much of fairy tale princesses as fairy tale stemware. I was assembled
there with more than a dozen wine journalists, all gazing skeptically at
a very dapper Austrian dude at the front of the room.
Although not exactly a prince, Georg Riedel is most definitely cut of an elegant mold. The current head of his family's renowned Austrian glassmaking firm, Riedel was there in his fancy suit and clipped accent to tell us all how, really truly, wine tastes better when it's served in his Sommelier series glasses. Only this time he had a much tougher audience than Cinderella's impressionable four-year-olds!
Riedel cleared his throat, asked us very politely to hold our questions until the end of his talk, and dove animatedly into a discussion of his family's more than 250-year-old philosophy on wine glass making. The gist of it all? In the man's own words, "The glass makes a difference."
We tasted several wines - a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend from France - in several different glasses deemed to be perfect fits for these three grape varieties. And not only did we taste the wines from their supposedly ideal glasses, we also tried the same wines in a couple of non-Riedel glasses, then in the other Riedel glasses (i.e. the Chardonnay in the Pinot glass, the Merlot in the Chardonnay glass, and so on).
We did other things too, like dinging the glasses (turns out the Pinot glass makes a really impressive sound that's a lot like church bells!), tilting them to see how the wine travels over the lips of the glasses into our mouths, and discussing their weight, height and the width of their stems.
By the end of the lesson, Georg had me convinced that his stems really do matter. The turning point for me was tasting the three wines in the other Riedel stems, an exercise that showed me that, for example, the Chardonnay really truly tasted better in the Chardonnay glass than it did in the Bordeaux glass.
And remarkably so, at that. In its ideal glass, the Chardonnay was a perfect fit: fruity, floral, nutty and rich, with its alcohol and acidity levels well knit into the overall experience. This has to do with several factors, we learned: the glasses' size, shape and rim diameter. Because wines have layered aromas, certain layers are played up best in glasses with smaller bowls, while others in larger, or taller bowls.
The lip of the glass controls where and how the wine flows into your mouth, another key factor when it comes to emphasizing or de-emphasizing something like, for example, Bordeaux blends' strong tannins (in this case the glass does the de-emphasizing job). And because each glass has been specifically engineered to account for just these sorts of factors, you really do have a much better experience drinking the wines out of their ideal stems.
In other words, there really is a perfect fit when it comes to stemware. If only Riedel's glasses came with a dashing prince (or princess, depending on who's tasting) to boot. Wouldn't that be the perfect end to this vinous fairy tale?