Penfolds’ chief winemaker Peter Gago says you can’t beat the taste of a wine drunk from a top quality glass. “It cannot be challenged,” he says. Jancis Robinson, master of wine and doyen of Britain’s winewriters, describes drinking from fine crystal as a “sensual thrill”.
And they’re right. Guzzle plonk from a tin mug around a camp fire in the outback and you’ll hear no complaints. Chug merlot at lunchtime from one of those new chunky glasses that you find at BYO cafés, and you’ll love every drop.
But for total, truly sublime appreciation of a wine, the better the glass, the better the experience. “A good wine deserves a good glass; a poor wine needs one,” that grand old gourmet Lord Wedgwood told me a few years ago over dinner at Beppi’s, an old-style Italian eatery in Sydney.
And restaurateurs should make no mistake about it: in the kaleidoscope of issues and intangibles that make up a restaurant, there’s none more important than glassware. No if’s, no but’s about it.
Quality glasses on a snowy white tablecloth, twinkling in the sun or the subtle light of dinnertime, give off a feeling of luxury. They tell the customer subtly and subliminally that a good time is assured. Put good glasses (stemware, to use the correct term) on the table and you’re immediately telling customers that you’re serious about wine and its integral role in complementing food. Nobody can argue with that.
Andrew Luttrell, general manager of Crown Commercial, which distributes the fine Luigi Bormioli glassware range to the hospitality industry, goes one step further. Invest in good glasses, he says, and you’re not only ensuring your customers have the best taste sensation possible, but you could actually sell more wine. And you really can’t argue with that, either.
Wine glasses have come a long way over the past few decades. Where they were simply glass bowls on stems, they now involve almost as much science as sending a space probe to Mars. Riedel and Luigi Bormioli, two of the biggest names in stemware, take the subject very seriously. To them, a wine glass is nothing less than a skilfully, artistically crafted device for delivering wine to that part of the tongue where it will be most appreciated.
“Different parts of the tongue emphasise different taste sensations,” says Luttrell. “Sweetness is felt strongest at the tip of the tongue, acidity at the sides, and bitterness at the back. The best taste is achieved when a glass is designed so the wine touches the best part of the tongue for that wine.”
According to Luttrell, research shows more than 90 per cent of what we perceive as “taste” is actually smell. Our tongues play a significant part in translating taste but arguably even more important is how our minds decipher a wine’s scent, or bouquet. How we take in that scent depends largely on the shape of the container—a wine glass in this case.
“The tongue perceives four tastes—salt, sweet, bitter and sour or acid. The remaining ‘taste’ factor comes from scent. When experts describe a wine as having ripe blueberry flavours with hints of chocolate and pepper, they are usually describing how it smells—its aroma or bouquet.”
Mark Baulderstone, regional manager for Riedel, says creating a glass is an art. “We believe in creating a glass to suit the specific characters of a wine,” he says. “Every wine has its distinct aromas and flavours and a glass that’s specially made for each wine will enhance the smell and the taste.” Last year Riedel—which makes nearly 300 varieties of stemware in its factory in Kuffstein, Austria, including one for every wine from ajaccio and albarino to zinfandel and zweigelt—collaborated with Penfolds on creating a glass for Australian shiraz.
As for what makes a good wine glass, well, it all depends on what you’re after. The first decision should be whether you want machine-blown crystal glass (crystalline), lead crystal or soda lime (basic) glass. Lead crystal glasses are magnificent—but very expensive. And for this reason, lead-free crystalline is rapidly gaining popularity in the restaurant trade. It’s just as strong as lead crystal and has the traditional clarity and ring qualities of crystal.
Using stemware made from basic glass is fine if you’re running a friendly noshery or a neighbourhood trattoria or bistro. But if wine is a serious part of your business, you’ll need something better. Regular glass doesn’t have the clarity of crystal and often has distracting imperfections such as wavy lines or rings.
The rest of it comes down to shape and Lak Quach, sommelier at Langton’s restaurant in Melbourne and Australian Wine Selector magazine’s inaugural sommelier of the year, says there are five main things people should look for.
He says wine glasses should be made from clear glass so you can see the colour of the wine; have a good stem so you can swirl it; be as thin as possible to enhance appreciation; big enough to get your nose in so you can have a good sniff, and should always taper in at the top.
“The taper is really important,” says Lak. “Many wines have delicate aromas and a glass that tapers in at the top captures and concentrates them.”
It should also be pleasing to the eye. “A glass that’s aesthetically pleasing will also improve the taste of the wine,” he says.
Coloured glasses and those that open outward, like a rose, are big no-nos. Coloured glass hides the true colour of the wine and a glass that opens outwards dilutes the bouquet. We taste 80 per cent of what we smell, so if we’re losing a wine’s aroma, we’re losing a big part of the flavour too, Lak says.
So far as the range of glasses is concerned, there’s a consensus that separate glasses for white wine, red wine, sparkling wine and fortified wine are essential, as well as water glasses, highball glasses and other cocktail glasses. And if you carry a range of super premium wines (those that retail for $50 or more) it’s a good thing to have super premium glasses to drink them from. Top quality glasses will enhance the flavour of the wine even more and your customers will thank you for it.
For sparkling wine, the modern “tulip” is the only way to go. “It’s definitely the best,” says Elisabeth Drysdale, director of the Champagne Information Centre. “You need a glass that’s tall and slender so the bubbles have room to rise to the surface, and curved in at the top to catch the aromas,” she says.
And as for those old saucer-shaped glasses—sometimes called a “coupe” or a Marie Antoinette, due to its shape similar to the lady’s breast—chuck ‘em out! They turn champers warm and flat.