Glassware is an important part of any table setting adding a transparent, reflective, vertical dimension that catches the eye. When filled with a brilliantly colored wine, good stemware is a marvelous marriage of form and function. There is a mind-boggling range of shapes and styles of glassware available to the consumer from any number of sources. From our perspective, though, too many of the vessels marketed as wine glasses do little to enhance, and in fact, often diminish the winetasting experience.
Drinking vessels have evolved along with civilization in their form and construction. Even though glassmaking was discovered in Egypt in 1500BC, cups were still fashioned from cow’s horns, ceramic, metal, or leather for centuries. Thick, stemless cups were the only styles available until the Middle Ages when an unknown German craftsman placed a stem on the traditional cup and created the "chalice". Ever since, the evolution of the wine glass has changed only slightly. Its main purpose is still to enhance the sensuous enjoyment of the beverage it holds.
Georg Riedel, the reknowned Austrian glassmaker, has taken the marriage of wine and stemware to incredible heights. He continues to create specific glass shapes that enhance the characteristics of classic wines from regions all over the world. His collection currently encompasses no less than 20 different stemware styles. His designs optimize the nose and palate by slight variations in bowl shape and size as well as how the wine enters the mouth as to what part of the tongue receives the wine first. One would need an entire room to house all the different permutations of Riedel’s research. A well chosen array of stemware styles is all that is necessary to enhance the sensory enjoyment for even the most avid wine connoisseur.
The essential ingredients for functional stemware are size, proportion, shape, and color. The size of the bowl should be large enough, if filled 1/3 to 1/2 of its capacity, to allow for sufficient room to swirl the wine and provide a generous, not excessive, portion for the drinker. Pick up the stem, is the bowl so large that it is top-heavy? If so, the proportions are wrong and could be the cause of many mishaps on your table linens.
Another mishap to avoid would be a stream of wine on yourself and your fellow diners. Look for a bowl that tapers inward at the top, or else watch the wine spew around as it gets swirled! The stem should be long enough for easy handling. Your hand can affect the temperature of the wine if it is too close to the bowl (that’s why the glass should always be handled by the stem). Also, the scents of perfumed lotions and soaps used on the hands can adversely alter the aromas of the wine which makes the distance between the hand and the opening a point to consider.
Look at the stemware on a table with your entire setting of plates and water glasses. Are the proportions of the stemware compatible with the placesetting? Is the style of the stemware very elegant, while the plates are heavy and chunky? Etched, cut, or colored stemware can be a beautiful addition to the table, but colorings or markings detract from the sensory experience of the wine tasting making it impossible to view the hue and clarity of the wine. Also, the thinner the glass the better for viewing and tasting. Distortions from thick glass can skew the view and you want to taste the wine, not the glass!
Keep your stemware spotlessly clean and odor-free. Strong detergents will ruin the tasting experience. Thoroughly rinse and polish your stemware after each use. Use a lint-free cloth for the best sheen or in a pinch try a clean coffee filter on still damp stemware (yes, it really works!). Professional polishing technique — hold the base in one hand while the other hand holds half of the towel inside the bowl, the other half outside; the thumb is inside the bowl, the other fingers outside; twist the glass with the hand holding the base, the towel is held tightly enough to wipe the glass, but not enough to cause tension. Voila! Another secret to sparkling glassware — red wine stains can be removed with denture tablets, one tablet dissolved in warm water per glass. Isn’t that just too simple!?
Focus on what types of wines you enjoy the most and choose your stemware to reflect those styles. White wine glasses are smaller than for reds. An all-purpose red can handle the job for most drinkers. But, if your wine preferences lean toward Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon) or Burgundy (Pinot Noir) on a regular basis, then an investment in a slightly larger bowl will greatly enhance the organaleptic experience. Champagne and sparkling wines show their bubbly best in a tulip or flute, not in those saucers that are best used for dessert. Use a smaller version of the white wine glass for sweet dessert, Port, and Madiera.
In France, you would never see a Cognac distiller drink out of a large balloon glass, but that is the style that seems to have become tradition in this country. Distillers around the world prefer a small bowl with a straight narrow opening to concentrate and focus the ethereal scents of Cognac, Armagnac, Scotch, Calvados and brandies.
Whatever your preference in wine, there is an assortment of glassware styles to choose from. The task may seem daunting, but do not dispair for the sensory rewards are worth the fun and exploration along the way.