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My Search for the Perfect Wine Glass
By Ed McCarthy
Jul 20, 2010
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Admittedly, I am a fanatic when it comes to wine glasses.  On more than one occasion, I’ve brought my own wine glasses to restaurants and to friends’ houses when I knew their glasses were inadequate.  Of course, I always ask permission of the friends to do so; most of them happily agree, accepting their wine geek friend’s eccentricities.

Indeed, just the other day, I was fortunate enough to attend a vertical tasting of nine vintages of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne in a NYC hotel, and I of course brought my own favorite Champagne glasses, knowing that almost all restaurants and hotels use flutes for Champagne.  Well, excuse me, but I’m not about to drink one of the most sublime, complex Champagnes in the world out of flutes!  By the way, no one in the hotel even batted an eye, although a few Champagne-savvy friends wanted to try the Cristal out of my glasses, of course.

Further down in this column, I’ll be recommending two special glasses which are not commonly found, but which I believe are definitely worth the search.  But first, let’s start with some wine glass basics.  Here are three simple axioms:

• Wines taste better out of good wine glasses.
• Among good wine glasses, the same wine will taste better out of one type of glass rather than another.
• The shape and the quality of the glass seem to be the main determinants in choosing the best glass for the wine.

Regarding the first axiom, I offer a comparison:  Don’t you appreciate the sound of music more out of really good speakers rather than pedestrian speakers?  With wine tasting, it’s the same.

The second axiom is a little trickier, and requires some investigative work on the part of the taster.  But it’s fun.  When my wife and I are tasting wines (which is frequently), we invariably try more than one glass to discover the best glass for the wine.  We want to taste the wine at its best before we write about it, plus we want the most gustatory pleasure that the wine can offer. 

(By the way, the different experience each wine glass gives is just one of the many reasons that you should take any wine critic’s numerical ratings with several grains of salt--unless you know which glass the critic was using, and you’re using the same glass--which is extremely unlikely!)

So what are the good wine glasses, you ask?  I can talk about some things that I’ve discovered about wine glasses over the years.  First, I should address the size of the glass.  Interestingly, when I wrote about wine glasses in Wine For Dummies, I noted that, “In most cases, larger is usually better (when it comes to wine glasses).”  Today, I would have to qualify that statement, and add, “depending on the wine.”  I’ve tasted the same wine out of smaller and larger glasses and sometimes prefer the smaller glass.  A particular wine might show a more accurate portrait of itself out of the smaller glass.  The shape of the glass seems to be a far more important criterion than the size.  Plus the quality and workmanship of the glass itself apparently counts a lot.

I generally prefer thin, crystal stemware.  Of course, such glasses cost more money than thick, machine-made glasses.  But if you’re spending a good sum of money for wine, it just doesn’t make any sense to be serving wine out of cheap, inferior wine glasses.  Riedel Crystal, an Austrian glass manufacturer, has made a specialty out of producing fine wine glasses, almost one for every major wine!  Generally, I think Riedel wine glasses are excellent, but you can also find other very good, less-costly wine glasses today.  In 2004, Riedel purchased its main competitor in wine glasses, Spiegelau, a German company whose glasses are less expensive than Riedel’s (Spiegelau still retains its own line of glasses).  Among the many other companies specializing in wine glasses, I’ll mention one, Ravenscroft Crystal, based in New York City, that offers an entire line of glasses at moderate prices.

First, let’s consider some general principles about glasses with red and white wines--including rosé wines, which generally fall into the white wine camp when it comes to glasses.  Then I’ll tackle a subject that’s close to my heart--the right Champagne glass. 

Wine glasses come in all shapes and sizes, but there are two general categories:
• The tall, truncated-oval shaped glass that narrows at the mouth; this glass is sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux or Cabernet glass.
• The somewhat shorter, wider-bowled, apple-shaped glass, often called the Burgundy glass. 

It has been my experience that the following types of wines generally taste better out of a tall, oval-shaped glass: red and white Bordeaux; Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Chianti, including Super-Tuscan wines; Brunello di Montalcino; Syrah, including Rhône wines; Malbec; red Zinfandel. 

You do have to experiment.  For example, you might find that a lighter Chianti or Syrah/Shiraz  might taste better out of a smaller version of the tall, large oval-shaped glass.  Most white wines (excepting Chardonnay) also seem to do well in a slightly smaller oval-shaped glass.  They would include Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio; Riesling; Grüner Veltliner; Viognier; Sancerre; Chablis; Albariño.  Also, lighter red wines, such as Beaujolais, Dolcetto, and Rosé wines usually do well in the slightly smaller oval-shaped glass.

The wider-bowled, apple-shaped glass is usually best for red and white Burgundies; Pinot Noirs; Chardonnays; Barberas; and Nebbiolo-based wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco.

But I have found one special wine glass that is simply outstanding for Barolos and Barbarescos, and it’s made by Spiegelau: the Willsberger Burgunder.  Its very name suggests that Mr. Willsberger originally designed it for Burgundy, and the glass does an excellent job with Burgundy as well. 

I first discovered the Willsberger Burgunder about 15  years ago when visiting Giacomo Conterno,  the legendary Barolo producer in Piedmont, Italy.  I noticed that the late Giovanni Conterno was using this unusually-shaped, wide-mouthed Burgundy-type glass for his Barolos and Barberas, and I asked him where he found them.  Giovanni replied, “From Riedel.”  I subsequently discovered that Riedel first made them, but Mr. Willsberger later took the glasses that he designed away from Riedel and brought them to the then-privately-owned Spiegelau.  I love these glasses for Barolo and Barbaresco; I’m convinced that they are the best glasses for these wines.  Willsberger Burgunder glasses bring out Nebbiolo aromas and flavors better than any other wine glass, in my opinion.  They are especially fine for older Barolos and Barbarescos.

The problem is that the Willsberger Burgunder is not sold in the U.S.; neither Reidel, when it sold it, nor Spiegelau sells it here.  But if you google “Willsberger Burgunder,” you’ll find that you can buy it directly from Spigelau in Germany. 

Ravenscroft also offers a fine glass that can be used for both Nebbiolo-based wines, Burgundies, and Pinot Noirs, but it’s no Willsberger Burgunder.

Now, let’s consider Champagne and sparkling wine glasses.  The most common type, the flute (tall and thin, like the musical instrument) is really not very good for Champagne or any serious sparkling wines, and I do not recommend its use.  Unfortunately, they are used in most restaurants in the U.S.  The fact that the glass does not narrow at its mouth is its chief drawback.  I would restrict its use to Prosecco and other inexpensive sparkling wines.

The tulip (roughly shaped like the same-named flower) is the second-most common Champagne glass.  Tulip glasses are tall, elongated, and narrower at the rim than in the middle of the bowl.  I think that the large tulip glasses, such as Riedel’s Grand Cru, are perfectly fine for Champagne and the better sparkling wines. 

A third type, the trumpet, is even worse than the flute, in my opinion.  It is very narrow at its base and actually widens at the mouth.  Also, the trumpet has no real stem, and so your Champagne or sparkling wine will warm up from the heat of your hand as you hold it at its base.  Avoid!

If you don’t have access to a large tulip glass, you can use a white wine glass--the smaller version of the tall, oval-shaped glass.  These are the glasses that are commonly used in the Champagne houses in France, especially for the better, more complex Champagnes.  They are a lot better for fine Champagnes than the flute or trumpet glass.

My very favorite Champagne glass has a French name, Les Impitoyables (which means “the Pitiless Ones”).  Les Impitoyables glasses made their debut in the U.S. in  the 1980s.  They’re called The Pitiless Ones because they were designed by their shape to reveal any flaws in aroma or flavor in wines.  I bought a set of the four different types, and frankly I found them to be difficult to use except for the Champagne glass, which I found to be amazing.  It is shaped very much like a wide tulip (large in the middle, narrow at the mouth), but it also has ridged interior surface, which apparently heightens aromas and flavors, and keeps the Champagne vibrant and lively by agitating its bubbles.  Also, the Champagne seems to have more depth and intensity of flavor in this glass.  I have been using the Les Impitoyables Champagne glass for about 25 years, and it has definitely heightened my enjoyment of Champagne.

Les Impitoyables glasses did not do well in the U.S. when they were introduced, and they quickly disappeared from the country.  Recently, a friend found them online by keyword searching the term.  Les Impitoyables, Glass #4, For Champagnes and Sparkling Wines, is now being made by Peugeot of France.  I have tried the “new” Peugeot version.  The glasses are exactly the same shape and size.  But they are lighter in weight than the original Impitoyables Champagne glass, and the inside of the glass is not so deeply ridged as the original glass.  I did a tasting test, and found that both the original Impitoyables Champagne glass and the Riedel Grand Cru (Sommelier Series) out-performed the new Impitoyables Champagne glass made by Peugeot.  Still, the new Impitoyables Champagne glass is considerably better than most other Champagne glasses that are available today.  A U.S. company called Wine Erotica is selling them online for $49.95 each.  If you happen to be in Paris (or possibly London), you still might be able to find the original Impitoyables Champagne glasses in shops or department stores that sell wine glasses.  Meanwhile, you can easily find Riedel’s Grand Cru Sommelier, a very fine Champagne glass, in the U.S.

In conclusion: wine glasses do make a difference in your enjoyment of wine.  And it’s very satisfying to find the most suitable glass for maximum enjoyment of your wines.  My two favorite glasses might take a require searching but I think they’re worth it:  Willsberger Burgunder for Barolos, Barbarescos, and Burgundies, and Les Impitoyables, original version, for fine Champagne glasses.