Sunday 15 April, 2012

Riedel Glassware: A Clear Difference


What’s in a glass? Some people, such as the wine shop that recently “tasted” wines for me in small Dixie cups, would assume not much. Others, like me, might recognize that a wine or cocktail will taste a little different in glass, crystal or plastic. Georg Riedel, on the other hand, will tell you that […]



What’s in a glass? Some people, such as the wine shop that recently “tasted” wines for me in small Dixie cups, would assume not much. Others, like me, might recognize that a wine or cocktail will taste a little different in glass, crystal or plastic.

Georg Riedel, on the other hand, will tell you that even in leaded crystal, the right glass, or wrong one, can entirely change your experience.

Every so often, Riedel of the Riedel Wine Glass Company gives presentations for both the trade (sommeliers and retailers) and wine lovers about their varietal-specific wine glasses. I attended one a few weeks ago, and can’t call it anything less than a revelation.

The set up, glasses and wines left to right

The set up, glasses and wines left to right

About 100 people were there, and no “professional” video or photos were permitted …which is why you’re seeing these rather unprofessional shots. In front of each of us were three glasses, along with three red wines, a Santa Rita Pinot Noir, a Syrah and a Cab Sauv, and spring water.

Riedel explained some biology: enjoying wine involves three senses, Taste, Touch and Smell. They are “private senses,” i.e. you can’t benchmark yours against anyone else’s sensations. He then went into a slight digression on the theory that about 25% of people are actually taste-blind, whether or not they realize it.

To smell a wine properly, Riedel pointed out, you’re supposed to put the bottom lip of the glass on your top lip. “You must have body contact,” he said, in a softly clipped Austrian accent.

We started the tasting with the water. “Water has no flavor,” said Riedel, “But it has taste.” Riedel explained that the different glass shapes “deliver” the water to the palate differently, while water dilutes saliva actually drying the palate. The first delivered it prinicipally to the front and center of the palate, with strong minerality. The second delivered it more to the back of the tongue and the mouth overall. The third delivered it to the mid-palate and sides, with a softer and sweeter taste.

He quoted Robert Mondavi, who in 1981 told him “In 50 years of winemaking, I’ve never heard such nonsense.”

“We are dealing wth physics, not chemistry,” Riedel pointed out. “We cannot improve or diminish the quality of the wine. We cannot show the wine better than it is. It’s a question of perception and preference.”

Further, he said, “Everyone does not need to be the same.”

First glass, first wine

First glass, first wine

It was time for the Pinot Noir, from Sta. Rita Hills (Central Coast, CA): In the first glass, it gave an aroma of cherries, a little yeast, and vegetation, with little alcohol. In the second the nose was markedly more intense, earthy with more plum and licorice. And in the last glass, there was almost no nose whatsoever.

“You only smell the head space of wine,” Riedel told us. “Each aroma has a different molecule size.” Swirling, as so many wine drinkers like to do, doesn’t actually help break aroma layers, Riedel said. Only gently shaking a wine will do that—and it will only stay for 30 seconds before the molecule weights return to their “right” places.

Now we tasted: The first glass showed acidity at the sides and front of the mouth, weight at the front and little at the side, with nothing at the back. In the second, it was a more concentrated flavor with stronger acid and a tingly sensation on the tongue tip. In the last, it was jucier and smooth but one dimensional and overly acidic.

Second glass, second wine

Second glass, second wine

Next came the Syrah, from cool climate Carneros (Hudson Vineyards, 2007, to be exact). On the nose, in the first glass was a little oak and strong alcohol. In the second, notes included black olives, toasted bread, and an overall earthy, vegetal sense. In the last, the nose was duller, with a bit of corn and yeast.

On the palate, in the first glass, the Syrah had a sweet soft start, and a brassy finish. In the second, it was juicy, softly mouth filling, and balanced with a soft oak finish. In the last glass, it was still juicy, slightly buttery, but dull.

“When you drink from my glasses, you FEEL the wine.”

Now it was time for the third wine, Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. As Riedel pointed out, mountain wines tend to have stronger tannins, something to keep in mind when choosing a glass. In the first glass, the nose on this was soft and a little doughy; in the second, just dull. In the third glass, however, the same wine showed strong licorice, blackberry, cedar and eucalyptus notes. This was easily the most dramatic difference from one glass to another.

On the palate, from the first glass, the cab tasted new and clunky. In the second it had strong cherry notes, and was off-dry. Not bad, not great. But in the third, it was juicy and sweet with a bright tartness and smooth finish.

Riedel explained that the first glass (Vinum XL Pinot Noir), was designed for leaner wines: Champagne, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo. The second (Vinum Syrah/Rhone) was better for the Rhone varietals: Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre, as well as Malbec, Pinotage, and Torriga Nacionale from Portugal.

The last glass (Vinum Extreme Cabernet/Merlot) was best for Cabernet Sauvignon (clearly) , Cab Franc, and Merlot.

Decant and Recant ;)

Decant and Recant 😉

“My tools have never let me down.” Riedel suggested to the somms in the audience that they might improve sales by trying their most popular wines in different glasses, to see which would be best to serve it in.

Lastly, we tried the Cab along with a piece of chocolate to see how the glasses affected pairing. It didn’t change the choice of glass, although the chocolate brought out some lovely blackcurrant notes in the wine. Riedel feels the choice of glass is much less important when drinking with food–probably a great relief to the somms in the audience fearing that he would try to sell them on tripling their glassware.

Riedel also demonstrated several of his decanters, which are not only artistically beautiful but scientifically intriguing. “Nobody needs a decanter like this,” he said of one serpentine favorite.

Georg Riedel, incidently, is the tenth generation to run his family’s company (founded 1756). It was his father Claus who first suggested using different stemware for wines in the late 1950s, though the 1973 Sommeliers glass was the real groundbreaker for the company, and the 1986 machine-blown Vinum series which made Riedels more accessible to many. Today, their stemless ‘O’ tumblers are increasingly popular.

The Riedel company, by the way, makes glasses for essentially every popular wine varietal, white and red, glasses for single malt whiskey (distinctly different from most tulip glasses) and also makes a great martini glass as part of their Bar series that has a slight rim to help avoid spilling, though that’s tragically less popular (I’ve only seen it at Charlie Trotter’s and one other place).


During the Q&A period, I asked Riedel his opinion of bottle-top aerators in place of a decanter. To his credit, Riedel said, at least in the case of newer wines, that he thought they generally worked quite well and recommended using them (which Riedel doesn’t make). This anti-snobbish attitude crosses over to Riedel’s literature, where I noticed that they recommend that wine drinkers generally spend for a glass something close to what they spend on an average bottle (and when you think about it, even a $20 glass is going to be a whole lot better than those $2 ones you’re probably using). Luckily, we got to keep ours.

Still, knowledge, as they say, can be a dangerous thing. Although I’m grateful for the experience, I’m also a little tortured now when I taste a red wine that’s supposed to be impressive and think I’m not getting much out of it. Is it the wine? Is it me? Or could it be the glass??


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