True or false: the glass changes the taste of the wine
There are three epiphanies in the life of the dedicated wine lover. The first is the discovery of wine itself — the first time you tasted it and found it had nothing to do with any other liquid you’d put in your mouth.
The second is your first encounter with a truly great wine, one that just knocked your socks off and had you running barefoot in the streets, crying “Eureka!”
The third is the recognition that a wine — any wine — tastes better out of a vessel that has been specially designed to deliver it to the palate in a way that shows it at its best.
The company responsible for the revolution in wine glasses is Riedel, an Austrian business that dates back to 1756. The company has designed specific glasses for virtually every major grape variety on the planet. Today they have loads of competitors in the classy stemware department.
The Robert Mondavi Winery was first out of the blocks to beat the drum for Riedel. In the early 1990s, I attended a tasting of Mondavi Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon served in three different glass shapes, one of which was the Riedel glass designed for wines made for those particular grapes. (You can replicate this tasting at home by tasking a V-shaped cocktail glass, a water beaker and a tulip-shaped glass.) The result was a “Road to Damascus” revelation. The wine tasted better from the Riedel vessels.
“Content commands shape” is a Riedel maxim that sounds like something Marshall McLuhan might have uttered in his cups. But when it comes to the enjoyment of wine, shape, it seems, matters.
Recently I did a comparison of some expensive stemware. I wanted to test them against the glass that I use at home to evaluate wines for Quench: the ISO glass. ISO is the International Organization for Standardization glass shaped like an elongated egg on a shortish stem. It can hold 215 ml of wine, but it is intended to take a 50 ml pour. I put this simple glass up against the Riedel Vinum Chardonnay/Montrachet glass, the Eisch Breathable Glass, the Lucaris Desire Universal, the Zalto Burgundy glass, Zalto Bordeaux, Zalto Universal and the Oberglas Passion Red glass.
The object of the exercise was to find out if the manufacturers of these glasses could actually make the wine taste better in their designated glass rather than the simple all-purpose ISO that the LCBO uses in their tasting lab and I use at home.
The bottles I poured were two whites from Ontario — one with oak and one without — Henry of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2015 and Henry of Pelham Unoaked Chardonnay 2015, as well as Henry of Pelham Speck Family Cabernet Merlot Reserve 2012.
The best result for the oaked Chardonnay was the Zalto Burgundy glass ($79.95 a stem), followed by the Riedel Vinum Chardonnay/Montrachet glass ($33.95 a stem). A point behind came my ISO (6 for $50). For the unoaked Chardonnay, again the Zalto Burgundy glass excelled but I preferred what the ISO delivered on the nose to the bouquet that rose from the Riedel glass.
The red wine comparison was even more of a revelation. Hands down the ISO offered me the most complete tasting experience. My note read: Speck Family Cabernet Merlot Reserve 2012 in ISO: dense ruby colour; cedary, blackcurrant nose with a touch of smoky oak; medium-bodied, petit château style, beautifully balanced, elegant, quite forward, good length. (92)
Basically the cheapest glass of all of them gave me the best result. The ISO may not look the handsomest on a dinner party table but for assessing wine — without having to resort to a cabinet filled with glasses dedicated to every known grape variety — the humble ISO is a winner. Loved the look of the Zalto but at that price I’d be terrified to use them. Their exceptionally long stem is no thicker than a knitting needle. So, back to the ISO, the Volkswagen of tasting glasses.