by Anthony Enright
So you’re not exactly a wine newbie, but let’s assume you’re also not a rabid wine geek either. Provided you’re not still drinking vino out of a coffee mug emblazoned with an adorable kitten (“hang in there!”), you likely own wine glasses of some kind. That’s good, and you’re to be commended for stepping up from the coffee mug, but maybe it’s time to take your wine game to the next level. For that you will need more than just wine glasses, you will need stemware. So what the hell is the difference (other than that I put the word in important looking italics)? Well, I will share my non-scientific but time tested opinion. Trust me, there was some painful trial and error that went into this, so spare yourself the pain and read on.
Wine glasses are simply any vessel designed for drinking wine, they could be the chunky goblets you inherited from your great aunt, or the not-that-bad set of wine glasses you picked up at Ikea. These are fine and dandy for everyday use and I’m not about to get all snobby on you and tell you to throw them away. However, if they’re the only tools in your wine drinking arsenal, you are severely missing out on the full pleasure of great wine, and I’d go so far as to encourage you to stick to buying table wines in the $10 to $15 range. (Okay, so a little snobby, I guess.) Stemware on the other hand, is how I would define wine glasses specifically created to enhance and improve the enjoyment of wines, either generally, or targeted to a varietal or region The grandaddy of the stemware industry, and pretty much the gold standard is the Austrian company Riedel. For the past 50 years, the Riedel family has shepherded a revolution in the wine glass industry by recognizing that the shape of the glass profoundly affects the sensory experience. This may seem like a fancy affectation, but no one who has tried their glasses would agree – the right glass has a nearly magical effect on how you experience a wine.
Riedel’s signature series is called Sommelier (named, of course, after the wine steward position in top restaurants) which delivers 32 enormous and ridiculously specialized glasses for the maximum enjoyment of every conceivable wine and spirit. The collection is gorgeous, decadent, shockingly delicate, and expensive (each glass runs around $125). In a perfect world where I had unlimited funds and a team of small (and very careful) house elves to guard my collection, these would be my choice for glasses. Alas, we live in the real world where there is a dearth of available house elves and where few of us can consider $8,000 for a collection of glasses that are likely to break at the slightest provocation an advisable investment. After some heartbreaking incidents that I will decline from recounting, I settled on the knowledge that a small group of these glasses were enough for me. That said, I currently make due with just two Riedel Sommelier glasses, and I love them like rambunctious children. My choice for the most exceptional wine glass in the world is the Riedel Sommilier Burgundy Grand Cru. It stands nearly 10″ tall, has a 37-ounce capacity and a bowl so thin and lovely the soul aches to look at it. The “beautiful monster” of a glass eviscerates lesser wines, mercilessly showing every flaw and weaknesses. On the other hand, great wines, especially those made with subtlety and nuance, are suddenly exposed in all their glory. The large bowl allows the bouquet to develop, while the flared top lip maximizes flavors by directing a precise flow of wine onto the front palate. I can’t tell you how many times a wine that seemed flat in another wine glass was revealed to be a soulful beauty in this glass. The huge bowl also allows for swirling the wine to air it and release aromatics, filling the glass too far would reduce the effectiveness of that process and lose some of the detail of the scents. The proper fill level is demonstrated below (FYI: that proper fill level goes for most good wine glasses). Have I effectively expressed in this paragraph how much I love this wine glass? I adore it, and consider it an important tool for tasting. If you only buy one glass to further your wine education, make it this one.
Okay, so now that I’ve geeked out over the best glass in the world, let’s acknowledge that no one is going to go out and buy 12 of these for everyday drinking. You would be crazy to! But again, I think it’s important to elevate even your everyday wine drinking into an experience. To do that I believe you should have a range of glasses that while not as intensely specialized as the Riedel Sommilier glasses are still uniquely tailored to whatever you may be opening tonight. To that end, there are a couple of very fine series of glasses that you should consider.
While not even approaching the level of Riedel’s Sommilier glasses, the Vinim series makes a dozen glasses specialized for various wine types. At around $25 each and made of glass they are a great step up from common department store offerings with thin rims and great balance, but you won’t have to weep if one gets broken. Though there are many options in this series, I think you can make a pretty stellar showing with just 4. The Riedel Vinum Bordeaux (perfect for all Cabernet or Merlot based wines), Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir, Riedel Vinum Sauvignon Blanc and Riedel Chardonnay. If you drink tons of Riesling or Zinfandel they have a corresponding glass for that, but you’d be hard pressed to feel slighted with the four I mentioned above.
Of course Riedel is not the only game in town, German company Spiegelau (actually now owned by Riedel, but historically an independent glass works…globalization, natch) offers both glass and crystal stemware of a similar quality at a lower price point (around $12 per glass). Wine snobs will endlessly debate if the discount is worth it, but I have glasses from both companies in my collection and can seldom tell the difference (though I do think the Spiegelau are slightly sturdier and less delicate).
Now that you’ve stocked up on wine glasses, a word about proper care:
One: NEVER put them in the dishwasher. Provided you don’t use detergent, there’s actually nothing inherently damaging about using the dishwasher, but you will inevitably get broken glasses in every other load, and that’s just expensive and unnecessary.
Two: Wash by hand, but avoid dish soap if possible. I wash by hand using mostly just hot water (as hot as you can stand) and then allow the glasses to dry upside down on a rack. If necessary you can wipe water spots off with a lint free cloth, but I don’t typically have much of a problem with that. There are a ton of little tools designed to clean stemware, and I’m sure they work fine, but I’ve never found them necessary.
So go out and get a few pieces of stemware and do some comparison tastings. You’ve got nothing to lose, and a whole new level of of wine appreciation right under your nose to gain!