How much do high-end wine glasses matter?

glasses-smallMy cabinets overflow with wine glasses of every shape and size. We manage to break one weekly, but the brimming collection strangely never dwindles. The cheap, logo-emblazoned ones are like indestructible cement, but the pricey ones regularly fall in battle. Unique to my house? I think not, because people often ask if the half-paycheck glasses are needed or if the $1.99 cheapies will suffice. The European Riedel and Spiegelau crystal manufacturers want you to believe that imbibing wine from their stemware results in an ethereal experience. Don’t believe all the hype.

In the ‘60s, Claus J. Riedel theorized that each varietal, from chardonnay to cabernet, presents a different flavor profile that could be better balanced using a specifically shaped glass. These wineglasses aim the liquid to hit the appropriate sweet spot on the tongue — factoring in the sour-, sugar-, salt- and bitter-sensitive areas. To shed some light on this idea, consider how your head is positioned while drinking from a tall, cylindrical champagne flute. To drink it, you must tilt your head way back. Armed with this information and a battalion of experts who have drunk the Kool-Aid, Riedel has released over 80 glasses of different shapes, sizes and — incidentally — price points, so the unwashed masses may also enjoy the fruits of his research.

Spiegelau, Riedel’s main competitor, boasts an equally expansive, fine-tuned set of stemware for about the same money (around $50 for six red ones). Comparing each brand mano-a-mano using a standard “Bordeaux” crystal, I couldn’t tell the difference. But I also tried the same wine out of an ordinary glass you might get free at a wine tasting. Big difference. The thicker, shorter glass fragmented the fruit and tannins, accenting the faults and there wasn’t enough swirl room. Reds drunk from the bulbous Bordeaux stems of the snobby manufacturers tasted remarkably more complex, aromatic and fruitier, and minimized the rubbing alcohol smell in an overripe red. Whites, however, didn’t improve much in the crystal.

The disparity in the tastes lies in defining crystal versus glass (among other things, like engineering). Higher lead content in crystal — the European Union requires at least ten percent to be sold as such — makes a glass sparkle, and the glassblower can mold crystal thinner because of its chemical makeup. The U.S. rule states that one percent lead can be labeled crystal. Hmmm.

But you can beat the system. No matter where you buy them, choose the lightest and thinnest ones you can afford. And, in wine glasses, size does matter. Go big or go home for red –- it needs some room to move, mix with the air and develop personality like a lubricated wallflower at a party. A small-mouthed, small-bowled goblet is fine for simple white sipping. But more complicated whites need a glass that narrows at the top to concentrate the delicate aromas (think bulging then narrow like a pear). And, good God, don’t buy those tacky tinted glasses – they block color, which is 1/3 of the sensory perception of wine.

Sure, like donning designer clothes, there’s something sexy and fun about holding swanky ultra-thin crystal in your hands. If you’ve got the extra cash, go for it. But they’re not a necessity to enjoying a well-made beverage.

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