By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
There is a quiet controversy in the wine world. It is not about American wines winning medals over French wines. It's not the cork versus screw cap issue. It is about glassware: do size and shape matter?
“Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
— Ernest Hemingway
The debate is "quiet" because there is no specific
scientific evidence to verify any of it. Proponents of both sides can only rely on results from tasting-and tasting and tasting. One side insists that drinking Bordeaux from a tumbler (as is done in cafes and many restaurants throughout Europe) is not really different than drinking Bordeaux from a bulbous crystal bowl perched on a thin stem designed to pull the best qualities from the varietal. The other group, of course, is sure that pouring Bordeaux into a run-of-the-mill tumbler also used as a water glass is nothing short of blasphemous, and respecting, understanding and truly experiencing the wine means investing in "proper" glasses.
There is a starting point, however, where the two groups meet in agreement. First, wine should be drunk from glass-not paper, not plastic, not Styrofoam. Glass is non-reactive and won't break down with an acidic wine. There is also an undercurrent of respect for the winemaking craft by serving it in a vessel linked to permanence rather than disposability.
The other point about glassware on which the two ends agree is that the glass should be clear and not colored or tinted, which also lets Styrofoam and paper out of the running. Certain wines have certain color characteristics. Champagne may be very pale, nearly clear with the slightest tinge of yellow. A Portuguese white Vinho Verde or a Sauvignon Blanc may have a light green cast. Burgundies have beautiful ruby or garnet colors, and Malbecs can be almost purple. Becoming familiar with wine colors is part of learning more about the varietals.
Here the tumblers vs. the stemwares part ways. The "stemware" theory is this: the tulip shape of the bowl-wide towards the base and tapered up-allows air to reach the wine and release its bouquet, or aroma, but does not allow that aroma to completely escape the glass. More so than colors, a large part of tasting and drinking wine is smelling wine, and varietals have distinguishing characteristics. For instance, Champagne may have a faint citrus scent, or Sauvignon Blanc a light grassiness. Some very expensive Burgundies exude an earthiness or a barnyard aroma-yes, it's true. To the stemware proponents, aromas mean flavors (though Burgundy does not taste like barnyards.) As an experiment, try taking a bite of pizza, grilled steak or another flavorful dish while pinching your nostrils closed. The difference in taste may be surprising.
For Champagne and sparkling wines, the bowl of the glass (called a flute) is elongated to reduce the amount of surface area available to the air, keeping the bubbles alive longer and keeping the wine from going flat. Seeing the bubbles buzzing through the glass is also part of the special fun of enjoying sparkling wine. A different type of glass, the Champagne bowl, has a wide bowl without the taper. Though showy and iconic, it's probably the worst glass possible for sparkling wine because so much of the wine is exposed to air. The bubbles disappear, and the wine turns warm and flat at a far faster rate.
A larger, tulip-shaped bowl makes it easier to "swirl," moving the glass in a circular motion. Swirling expedites aeration making it easier to identify the smells in the wine: citrus, plum, cherry, violet, chocolate, etc. There are over 200 identifiable scents in wine. Sometime when relaxing with a glass, try swirling and sniffing the wine three times while sipping. The wine should "open up" and release more aromas by the third time.
The Riedel family has been selling wine glasses and decanters for 300 years, 11 generations. After World War II, Claus Riedel had the idea of engineering wine glasses for specific varietals. This meant that each wine was analyzed for its prevailing characteristics, and he combined science, physiology and glass blowing to create glasses that would enhance the tasting and drinking experience.
The company began focusing on this line and is now known worldwide as the premier producer of professional and connoisseur quality glassware. Each glass design provides the optimal bowl size and shape for its particular wine. Moreover, Riedel has designed the lips of the glasses to direct wine flow toward the optimum areas of the mouth, again, theoretically to bring out the best qualities of the wine. The company produces a range of glassware from the everyday "Ouverture" series to Claus Riedel's "Sommelier" line. His Burgundy Grand Cru glass designed in 1958 is now on permanent display at the New York Museum of Modern Art. It can also be purchased by the general public online for $125.
There may be a happy medium in the tumbler vs. stemware discussion. A breakout faction among the stemware group concerns, well, stems. Per traditional wine tasting, wine glasses are held by the stem in order to keep the hands from warming the glass (and wine.) Some believe holding the stem makes swirling easier, too. The downside to stems is that the glass is more delicate and can also be tipped more easily.
Over the past few years, more people have begun using bowl-shaped "tumblers." These look like the tulip-shaped bowls that simply sit on the table and are geared toward "white" or "red" wines as most regular wine glasses. They are inexpensive, harder to tip over and easier to wash. Their downside is, oddly enough, created by the lack of stems: holding the glass will warm the wine faster and change and flatten the taste. Another comment by a serious wine taster was that he didn't like to study the wine through fingerprints.
Enter in the fact that each person's palate is different, and the question of whether to stem or not to stem is probably more a matter of personal preference. Riedel has built a business on wine specific glasses while restaurants and wineries have served up wines for two centuries in humble all-purpose glasses. Let the event dictate the glassware: casual glasses at casual parties and picnics and traditional stemware to dress up the table. In choosing the tulip-shaped bowls, however, look for sizes of 10 to 12 ounces to pour about four ounces at a time. This is a good ratio of wine to air, and a good bottle will last longer with smaller pours.
If you are curious about the controversy, invite a few friends over and try the same wine in different glasses to determine any variations for yourselves. In the end, it will be the combination of good friends, good wine and good times that create the good memories.