Riedel Sensory Experience, Does The Glass Really Matter?

Does the glassware you drink your wine from really matter? Is a jelly jar or a shot glass just fine for tasting and drinking wine? These were the burning questions that we, and another 50 plus wine tasters, gathered at Sterling Vineyards this past Saturday to answer. Assisting us in answering these questions were Sylvie Laly, from Riedel Crystal of America, and Alyson Crarry, one of the winemakers at Sterling Vineyards.

It was a gloriously sunny and warm day and the Dunstan Room was setup for us with four Riedel glasses with wine in each. The glasses used for this tasting were from the Heart to Heart series of grape varietal specific glassware. There are five stems in this series. At each place setting was an Oaked Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon glass and a plastic V-shaped glass labeled “Joker.”

Riedel Place Setting
photo by Linda Foley
In total, Riedel makes 14 lines of glassware for a total of 400 kinds of stemware!
Now to be realistic, when asked why Riedel has so many different glasses, Sylvie did say consumers always want something new. Riedel tries to develop new styles while still designing the glasses for specific varietals. They also work with winemakers to develop glasses that will show their wines at their best. Such as the Oregon Pinot Noir glass the developed for Willamette Valley winemakers. The slight flair on the opening is supposed to help with young, high acid Pinot Noir.

Sylvie began with a brief history of the 255 year old family owned company. She explained the importance of “composition”. Composition of the raw materials is essential to producing the highest quality glass with the desired clarity. Riedel’s location in Austria is in proximity to the location of these raw materials within Austria and Eastern Europe.

Composition of feel, that is the balance of the wine glass, is essential to the tasting experience. Ideally the weight of the bowl is equal to the weight of the base. She explained Riedel glassware is made to be held by the stem, by the base or by the bowl. All ways of holding a Riedel glass should feel balanced. I remember noticing how well a Riedel glass fit my hand the first time I used one. It made swirling wine in the bowl of the glass effortless compared to other glassware. Now I know that this is due to the balance of the glass.

Composition of sound, that is the characteristic “ding” that is achieved when clinking two glasses together. Sylvie demonstrated the desired “ding” when the bowls to two glasses are clinked together. She instructed us to always clink glasses together at the middle of the bowl. This is the thickest portion of the bowl, thus the safest place to clink glasses together and get the desired ding without breaking the glass. Many of us cringed as she clinked the glasses together quite firmly. The sound was lovely!

With the importance of composition discussed, we moved on to the sensory portion of the tasting. During this portion, Sylvie began by instructing us to smell the “sleeping” wine, that is smelling the wine without swirling it in our glass. Also, as Sylvie moved through the tasting of each varietal, Alyson would talk about the details of the vineyard, the grapes, the growing season, the wine making style and aging of each varietal.

Riedel Riesling GlassWe began with the Sterling 2010 Cellar Club Riesling. Initially, it had very little nose. After swirling, the nose became very apparent. The flavors were bright and floral. After tasting, Sylvie instructed us to pour the rest of the Riesling into the “joker” glass, that plastic V-shaped cup. Then she told us to smell the wine. There was no nose, even after swirling! When we tasted the wine, the flavors were significantly diminished. We then poured the Riesling back into the Riesling glass. Like magic the nose and flavors returned to the glass. The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate how the shape of the glass influences both the smell and taste of the wine. The fact that the “joker” glass is plastic is insignificant.

So, the first lesson is shape matters. The V shape of the “joker” glass allows the smell of the wine to escape, whereas the narrow opening of the Riesling glass traps the fragrance in the bowl of the wine glass. Riedel Chardonnay GlassThis lesson was reinforced as we moved to the 2008 Sterling Reserve Chardonnay in the Oaked Chardonnay glass. This glass has quite a round bowl with a rather large opening. At first, you would think this would allow the scent of the wine to escape. In the case of the Chardonnay glass, the reason for the wide opening of the glass is to allow the esters from the alcohol to escape so that the scent of the Chardonnay is not overwhelmed by the alcohol. The wide opening of the wine glass also allows the wine to pour over a wider section of your tongue.

When we poured the Chardonnay into the “joker” glass it too lost most of its smell and flavor. When returned to the Oaked Chardonnay glass, the scents and flavors returned.
Interestingly, when we poured the Chardonnay into the Riesling glass, the scents and flavors were very different from the Chardonnay glass. The flavors in the Chardonnay glass were much more pleasant and rounder. The flavors in the Riesling glass were more austere and mineral like.

Riedel Pinot GlassMoving to the Pinot Noir glass, we followed the same order. The sleeping wine produced very little nose. Once swirled the berry, current and earthy scents came out of the wine. The flavors were earthy and fruity as well. The bowl of this glass and the Chardonnay come from the same mold. The Chardonnay bowl is slightly wider with a wider opening, more balloon like than the Pinot Noir glass. The Pinot Noir glass produces a narrowed flow of wine over your tongue than the Chardonnay glass. When we poured the Pinot Noir into the Chardonnay glass the nose and flavors also changed to show even small differences in the bowl are noticeable.

An interesting note about the Pinot Noir: Sterling Vineyards doesn’t usually make a Pinot Noir but for the 2011 vintage they felt their grapes were good enough to try. Alison said this wine had only been in the barrel for a little over two months, so really it was a barrel sample. The grapes are a blend of the Beba clone, a Spanish clone that adds strawberry notes and the Dijon 115 clone which makes it more brawny and muscular. The wine was great already with strawberry, brambles and spice in the nose and red currents in the flavor. We would have taken some then but it won’t be bottled until July and then held to be sold in October. Only about 400 or so cases will be available and at the winery only.

Riedel Bordeaux GlassThe Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux glass and tasting was interesting as well. The wine chosen was the Sterling 2008 SVR Reserve Bordeaux Blend. Again, the sleeping wine had a minimal nose. When swirled the nose was very evident. Flavors had a bit of vegetal, very ripe fruit and a bit of cilantro. Tannins were significant, but well integrated. Once poured into the Pinot Noir glass, the tannins became very rough and were not well integrated, almost bitter and they dominated the flavors. The difference was very noticeable in the Pinot Noir glass.

Sylvie also decanted the same Cabernet into the Riedel Mamba decanter which you have to see to understand. It is a snake like decanter and the wine gurgles as you move it around. We still had some of the original SVR Reserve in one glass and compared it with what Sylvie poured from the decanter. With all the aeration the wine had also changed and opened up more.

Riedel Mambo Decanter
photo by Linda Foley

In conclusion, I think we can say that glassware definitely does matter in the enjoyment of your wine. Do you need to buy a lot of expensive glassware? I guess it depends on what you can afford. You can buy wine glasses for a a few dollars apiece or for $100 apiece or more. The glasses we tried (and got to keep) are $40 each. When you pick up a piece from Riedel or another high end glassware manufacture you will notice the feel and balance is much nicer than department store glasses. I would recommend you buy a couple of very nice glasses and try them. If you really like the difference then start putting them on your Christmas or birthday list. You might buy a couple of better glasses just for those special occasion wines and use the ordinary glasses the rest of the time.

Note: Last night our friend Dave came over with a 2002 Andrew Rich Pinot Noir. We poured a little in each glass type and put him through the same drill we had gone through. His conclusion was much the same as ours. The glass does make a difference!

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