(All images by courtesy of Zalto ,except the taste zone illustration from Riedel)
I promised you an elaboration on wine glasses about a year ago. So here goes – this is the first of some upcoming posts on wine glasses.
After this post, there will be a presentation of the glass producers - after that a presentation of each glass and in the then end a conclusion of my tests.
I have always been fascinated by how the smallest details can make an significant difference. I remember when I studied finance; I quickly hooked up with one of my classmates, who were a HI-FI nerd. He had the smallest apartment I had ever seen and it didn’t do much good to the décor of the place, which was filled with Elektrostat loudspeakers, a weird looking record player, several amplifiers and subwoofers, making the place look like a sound studio with a kitchen. The sound was magical. Never had I heard music expressed so pure and fragile. I remember coming home to my own HI-FI thing…awful – it was like comparing a Ferrari California with a Berlingo.....and I had the latter.
I think of wine glasses in the same way. Glasses are the loudspeakers, which brings out the most fragile nuances in wine. We are willing to spend an awful lot of money on wine – we should also be willing to spend a decent percentage on wine glasses. Getting familiar with wine and educating your own palate are exactly about listening to small differences.
But for sure, I can understand why not all want to go have so many glasses like I have.
It’s not always easy to convince people about the importance of the glass. Somehow it has the tendency to be seen as something geeky, if you are so focused on having the right stemware. Surely the non-believers have a point – especially when the debate completely forgets what’s inside the bottle.
The constant search for the perfect wine glass are definitely the main reason why I have so many glasses – but it’s also a bit irrational and collector behaviour.
The natural approach
It shouldn’t really be difficult to act as an ambassador for having a glass for each type of wine.
Just make people smell a wine in a plastic cup and then let them taste the wine is an appropriate glass. I think most people get that the wine will obviously taste better in the wine glass than a plastic cup. It’s much more difficult to convince people about the small nuances. This requires actual testing.
Most of the times, when the geeks - and in the end, the defenders of the glass has an emotional approach to the glass. We rarely speak about science, because it’s a bit more complicated and doesn’t seem natural. But maybe we should – but let me get back to that. The emotional approach is somehow easier, as our senses are a vital part for the choice of wine glasses. Emotions basically holds everything we need to explain about the glass, as we can enlighten our friends or other wine lowers, how great we think this particular glass is. We can even talk about the shape, weight, brilliance and design of the glass and how well this type of glass works with this particular wine or grape.
But there is no real proof to back up our theories. Surely, glass testing can be conducted and ARE being done - but most of the times, we of course try to focus on the wine itself. Glasses are like wine – they are objects for different palates and open for discussion.
But there is some science to the wine glasses – which shows that wine glasses can be engineered to enhance certain features in a wine.
The experts say that 80% of the evaluation of a wine comes from the "nose". 10% is the taste zones. We know them better as; sweet, sour, salt, and bitter (see Illustration above). The last 10% is texture. Texture has a close partnership with the temperature of the wine. Think of it – as soon as the wine touches our lips, small nerve impulses will send messages to our brain. Putting your lip to a wine that was boiling – you would immediately stop. Texture is also about the density, structure, viscosity, minerals and tannins. Is the wine oily, creamy or does the tannins create dry spots on the palate? With texture we can even determine if we find the wine fascinating or dull – just by reading the impulses of the mouth feel of the liquid.
But there is more science. Aromas are about molecules. The smell of cherries, blackcurrant or the aroma from the barrel etc - everything is about the size and weight of the molecules.
The glass producers are of course aware of this and that is why glasses can be engineered to express the terroir of the wine and the DNA of the grape.
Let’s talk a little more about this.
The molecules place themselves inside the glass in layers. The concepts of these layers are of dependent on their weight and size.
When it comes to the weight of the molecules, the lightest raises right up to the rim of the glass. These aromas are typical clear fruit and flowers. Did a bell just ring – or did you also just think of the Burgundy glass? Now it’s certainly gives meaning why the Burgundy glasses are designed like they are. In the middle of the glass you have green vegetal scents and earthy, mineral components. The heaviest aromas, typically of wood and alcohol, remain at the bottom of the glass.
But you are not able to smell through these molecule layers – that’s why we swirl the wine. Swirling is NOT about aerating the wine – it’s about increasing the evaporation surface. But swirling the wine does NOT blend the molecule layers together. That’s why wines taste so differently from glass to glass. The reason – well, the molecules will still hold their weight and sort of ranking by weight in the layers, as wine flows on gravity. If you want to obtain the same smell no matter what glass you use, you will have to separate the layers vertically by shaking the glass (good luck).
The size of the glass
If you think of it, some wine glasses are ridiculous big. Why even make glasses – like the Riedel Sommeliers line, which for the Burgundy Grand Cru (1050cl) and the Bordeaux Grand Cru (850cl) can hold over a bottle of wine? Riedel has come up with something they call “orange skin”. A technique in the making of the glasses, which will more than quadruple the evaporating surface inside the glass. This should prevent the wine for getting lost in the big glasses and hopefully result in a seamless presentation of the wine. But the overall oversized glasses are of course about increasing the evaporating surface and orchestra the nose - orange skin or not.
The rim diameter and the thickness of the rim
There is a link between the rim diameter and the size of the glass. When you lift the glass and are about to sniff and taste the wine, a routine is activated - which you might never have thought about. Your brain has already made a calculation – based on what your senses (your eyes) have reported - which results in your mouth and tongue adjust themselves to the liquid they are about to consume. The tongue locks itself into a fitted shaped, which will match perfectly to the design, size and rim diameter of the glass. It’s crucial where on the tongue the wine have touchdown and how wide or narrow the flow to the tongue will be. The smaller the rim diameter the further it’s pushes down the wine on the palate. This is truly problematic – as on the back of the palate you have tannins and bitter components. The ISO glass – which has the reparation of being a reference glass, is IMHO the most mediocre wine glass of existent. The glass is popular because tasters often get’s the same impression in this glass – and therefore often comes up with the same conclusions on the wine. But, as I see it – what has just happened is a sterilization of the wine, as this glass has a way to narrow rim diameter and therefore always will push the wine further down the palate and emphasize tannins and bitter components. Imagine a young Pinot Noir, which has lots of delicate sweet bright red fruit. A Burgundy shaped glass – will firstly present the nose much better as Pinot Noir is such an aromatic grape. It will also direct the wine to the front of the palate – giving touchdown on the tip of the tongue where the sweet taste zone are located - highlighting delicate fruit. Having it touch on the back palate, with the ISO glass - will be catastrophic as here you have tannins and bitter components.
So - the shape, size and rim diameter of the glass decides how and where the wine will hit the palate – but also how it will expand to the palate. This is essential for getting the balance right between fruit, tannin and acidity. However – we don’t all like the glass to deemphasize, let’s say high acidity. I personally can’t get enough of high acidity. However - with red Burgundy it’s really important that the wine will hit the tip of the tongue to get all of those wonderful sweet red aromas in. If you look at Riedels gigantic sommeliers Burgundy glass – you will see the glass bends itself outwards again at the top of the glass. Riedel calls this technique “Acidity barriers” and this directs the wine to the tip of the tongue and from there it expands itself onto the palate.
In the glass world you speak of a cut rim and a rolled rim. Basically it’s really important that the glass has a fine cut rim, as it makes the wine flow more direct, precise and smooth into the mouth. A rolled feels clumsy when the lips touch it, as it inhibits the smooth flow of the wine and will accentuate acidity and harshness.
Weight, design and handling.
Glasses are a tribute to the senses and can be utterly beautiful things. A perfect wine glass, gives comfort in having secured the wines ability to show all of its generic codes.
But there are also softer parameters like praising the weight, design and handling of the glasses. The weight – the lighter the glasses are – the more exquisite, elegant and closer you feel to the wine. Having very thin glasses have the tendency to give the wine more freshness and electricity. A light glass should have a really firm stem, a solid foot and make you trust the glass hardness and not feeling it could easily break. However - most “glass accidents” really happens when washing up the glass, turning bowl and stem towards each other or simply just washing up with a bit too much good wine in your blood.
The design of the glass might be a secondary parameter, as functionality has to come first.
But still we deal with glass, which just happens to be connected with craftsmanship and beautiful objects. The reflection of the light in the wine glasses, the swirling of colorful liquid – or just small bubbles rising, like life has just erupted. All the sense giving elements can increase the appetite for tasting the wine. It’s not uncommon that people will refer to a glass as being beautiful, elegant or even sexy, by just looking at them.
Weight and design are of course closely associated to the handling of the glass. All 3 parameters have to be fulfilled in order to have the perfect glass. The handling is the last checkpoint, as here you get to see how the functionality of the glass integrates with weight and design.
Next up is a presentation of the glass producers; mainly Zalto, Spiegelau and Riedel.