How to Pick the Best Wine Glass for Each Wine

When it comes to choosing the right stemware for your wine, the shape of the glass is more important than you might realize. And the reasons for this may surprise even the most wine-savvy among us. 

The two biggest components of wine are alcohol and water. The balance of these two ingredients determines the flavor and texture of the wine, and the way you perceive it on your palate. 

The moment you open a bottle of wine, the alcohol begins to evaporate. And when you pour the wine into your glass, it begins to evaporate even more swiftly. (For the chemically curious among us, take a look at this wonderful article published some years ago by the editors of Scientific American).

So how can your wine glass help keep the right balance of alcohol and water to ensure the best drinking experience?

Picking the best wine glass depends on the type of wine you’re drinking. There’s a difference between the best red wine glass versus the best white wine glass, for example.

But even within basic categories of wine, there are many distinguishing features that make wine glass selection important.

The main considerations when choosing the best wine glass are:

  1. Shape of the glass
  2. Glass aperture size
  3. The stem (or lack thereof)

Let’s start by considering the shape of a wine glass. 

How Does the Shape of a Wine Glass Affect Wine?

The shape of your wine glass can affect your wine in two important ways:

  1. It can change the temperature of the wine
  2. It can change the rate at which the alcohol evaporates

Let’s start with temperature. The number one way that your glass affects your wine is the way it distributes heat.

Most wine aficionados know that the stem of your wineglass keeps your body heat from being transferred to the wine itself, which can make the alcohol evaporate too rapidly. 

And as the alcohol evaporates, the character of the wine changes — potentially diminishing the flavor and feel. Like we mentioned above, this is because the balance of water and alcohol is shifting. The evaporation process also causes the wine's aromas to travel more swiftly. 

The second important element is the wine's exposure to oxygen. The more contact the wine has with the air, the more rapidly it will oxygenate or aerate, as we say in wine speak. 

Contact with air is what releases wine's aromas and flavors as the wine literally starts to oxidize. (That’s why, depending on the wine, many will start to lose their aromas and flavors if left exposed to the air for a few days.)

This is what we describe as the wine "opening up." Sometimes, a wine needs to open up to release its aromas and flavors, so contact with oxygen is a good thing. But other times, a wine will begin to lose its aromas and flavors as it opens up. 

A good general rule of thumb is that red wines benefit from opening up more quickly, while white wines — which are already more evolved — are best with less oxidation.

When it comes to the shape of your wine glass, the math is simple: The narrower the diameter of the aperture of your glass, the slower the alcohol will begin to evaporate. The larger the aperture, the quicker it will begin to evaporate.

The Secret Reason Behind Wine Glass Stems

Besides protecting your wine from heating up too quickly in your hand, there’s another reason why most sommeliers advise using stemware when drinking fine wine: Your fingerprints and oils and other substances on your fingers can sully the glass itself, and this can impede or attenuate the visual impact of the wine. 

Yes, the visual impact of the wine — the color and the opacity or transparency — tells you about the wine's origin, its fitness, and its "varietal expression" — in other words, it’s "correctness" in relation to the grape variety with which it's made.

The visual impact is also important because it greatly affects our enjoyment of the wine. Just think of the perfect table setting for a romantic or intimate dinner. It wouldn't be complete without the wine, would it? 

The color of wine can do a lot to change the mood of a setting. Just think how bright, golden-colored Champagne livens up a party. Or consider how the pink hue of a great rosé can set the tone for a dinner for two. 

The Tradition and Culture of the Wine Glass

There's something else that we often forget about when it comes to choosing the right glass for the right wine: Tradition and culture. 

Every country and nearly every wine appellation in the world has its own traditional glasses to pair with its wines. And although stemware has changed greatly over the generations and continues to evolve (at a breakneck pace as the interest in wine across the world continues to expand), there are certain glass shapes that evoke a place and a time. 

Two glasses that immediately come to mind are the old guard, long-stemmed Riesling glasses that used to commonly grace the tables of Vienna. Or the slight tulip shape of the glasses that the old timers still use in Barolo when they pour their favorite Nebbiolo. 

The shape of the wine glass can powerfully bring us to a moment in a time, and the emotion that such a moment stirs in our memories. 

Today, there are few sommeliers who would pour Champagne in a flute, for example. But what 1990’s-themed party would be complete without a reference to the classic film "Pretty Woman", and the scene where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere drink Champagne from a flute, paired with strawberries? You know the one we’re talking about!

The point is, the shape and style of the glass can also create a mood through references to local traditions and popular culture.

Choose What Works for You

It’s important to remember that beyond some of the technical aspects of choosing the right glass for the right wine, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers or solutions here. 

Whether you’re trying to evoke a fin de siècle table setting for your next dinner party or you’re trying to get “in the mood” with your partner by serving Champagne with freshly cut strawberries, choose the glass that works for you. 

Remember the scene from the classic wine buddy film “Sideways” when Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, drinks the 1961 Cheval Blanc in a Styrofoam cup? As we like to say in the wine business, if you can’t be with the glass you love, love the glass you’re with! 

More on Wine Glasses to Come!

In our next post, we’ll share some of the world’s classic and traditional pairings between wine and “stem” as we like to call wine glasses in the wine trade. 

The shape and style of the glass can do so much to affect the aromas and flavors of the wine — more than you might have imagined.