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Glass act

Stemming the tide of stemware

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

Wine doesn’t really need a specialized delivery mechanism. Plastic cups, glass tumblers, beer mugs…all fine. Straight from the bottle? OK, maybe not. (And shotgunning is definitely out.) But at some point, you’re going to want to bring a little more class to the proceedings. And that’s when you enter the impenetrable forest of stemware, the fancy industry-approved term for “wine glasses.” Though not all stemware even has a stem these days. More on that later.

Unless you’ve got a wedding registry in your near future, this is going to cost some money. Depending on how extravagant or showy you want to be, perhaps a lot of money. It’s all about what you want.

But first, let’s talk about what you need. There is, believe it or not, a theory behind stemware…and despite the fact that a glass is designed to deliver liquid between the lips, when it comes to wine it’s really all about the nose.

See, taste as we commonly understand it isn’t taste at all. It’s smell. Whether experienced via sniffing or retronasally (inside the mouth), the “taste” of a strawberry, a pork sandwich, or a cabernet is actually its aroma; all we can actually taste are fairly basic, structural things like sweetness, bitterness, and acidity. Enhancing aroma is the purpose of a properly-designed wine glass.

Which is? Something big enough to swirl the wine, which volatilizes the aromatic chemicals. A curved-in rim stops swirled wine from sloshing all over your shirt. A thin and squared-off lip (usually crystal) focuses the wine, while a rolled lip (glass) muddies it. And crystal’s rougher surface texture also helps bring out aromas, though of course it carries with it a significant upcharge.

After that, we veer into the realm of style and personal preference. Clear, unadorned, and relatively light is considered more “serious,” but it’s really up to you. As for shape and size, the conventional wisdom is that reds deserve a larger bowl (that’s the rounded bulk of the glass), while whites do better with a slimmer profile, but that’s mostly hooey. However, bowl size and shape do have two effects worth considering.

Of the many things that volatilize from wine, the most prominent is alcohol. A large, curved-in bowl will trap alcohol, giving the wine a searing aroma. Thus, when serving high-alcohol wines (in general, anything over about 14-14.5%), it’s best to use smaller, narrower glasses. On the other hand, that same large-bowled stem will enhance particularly aromatic wines: pinot noir/red Burgundy, gamay/Beaujolais, nebbiolo (including Barolo and Barbaresco), and viognier/Condrieu (though watch alcohol levels on the latter). Here, the bowl collects all those lovely aromas, leaving them open to the questing nose. But don’t dip your schnozz into the wine. That’s just gauche.

For bubbly, the tulip shape – tall, narrow, slightly curved-in – is the only choice. Those flat, wide-bodied coupes are useless.

So…what to buy? It used to be easy. One company – Austrian manufacturer Riedel – made stemware specifically suited for wine fanatics. Each glass (and there were scores of designs) was constructed to enhance the characteristics of a specific grape, place or wine type.

They’re terrific receptacles for wine – stylish, clear and unadorned – and they do “work” in the sense that certain wines unquestionably improve in their designated glasses, but much of the research on which they’re based (for example, the “tongue map” of acid/sweetness/bitterness, etc.) has been thoroughly debunked. Perhaps more cautionary is their melding of dramatic expense and extreme fragility. Breaking an $80 glass is no fun for anyone, except maybe Riedel.

Riedel makes gorgeous stems of all types (glass, leaded and lead-free crystal), sizes, shapes (even a stemless version, which mostly acts as a fingerprint magnet), and price levels, and they remain fine choices if one can stomach the tariff. But they’re far from the only option these days. At the higher end, many crystalline competitors exist: Spiegelau (owned by Riedel), Orrefors, Mikasa, Waterford, Lenox, Villeroy & Boch, and so on, all making stemware that looks a lot more like Riedel than the ornate, cut-crystal stems of the past. Even fashionistas have gotten into the act, including Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, and Vera Wang. These and other models are available at department stores, fine wine retailers, or online at IWA, Amazon.com and Brown Derby. If glass is what you’re looking for, any decent kitchen store…Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, etc…has a wide array of options to fit any budget. Remember: the thinner, the better.

And finally, a few words about stemcare. Crystal should be hand-washed – rinse thoroughly, as soap residue will cling to crystal stems – but if you’re determined to use the dishwasher, purchase a few Crystal Safe dishwasher racks (available via most online retailers), and make sure to use the gentlest setting possible. Because if you break enough glasses, you’ll be right back to the plastic cups.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.