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Written by Nikitas Magel, and published in Epicurean Charlotte, Food & Wine magazine   

The Importance of Wine Glasses

wine_glassesAs with every leisure pursuit in life, there are passionate enthusiasts at one extreme, and casual spectators at the other.  The two won't share the same level of dedication, interest, or attention to detail in the enjoyment of that pursuit.  And so the story goes with wine glasses: a wine enthusiast will very likely spend some energy on the type, quality, and shape of the glasses s/he chooses in which to enjoy wine, whereas a casual wine drinker will not (or at least not nearly to the same degree).  But like quality-engineered loudspeakers for music, well-crafted athletic shoes for sport, or finely-machined pruning shears for gardening, good glassware for wine allows for more a more precise experience, and therefore greater enjoyment and appreciation overall, even if you're not a full-fledged enthusiast.

Now, this isn't to say that I'm encouraging spending an exorbitant amount on stemware. Good glasses don't have to be expensive.  But if you're already spending money on wine that's being consumed, why not set aside a fraction of that to buy and make use of a fine set of glassware?  I assure you, doing so can really make as astounding difference in your perception of wine, very often accentuating the subtlety and nuance that might have otherwise been lost.  At the same time, be practical: seek to maximize the quality of the glasses you use to enjoy wine, while minimizing the potential pain you'll feel when one of them eventually breaks — an inevitable and nearly unavoidable reality.

But other than price, what sets apart a quality wineglass?  One important feature is the size and shape of the bowl (the upper part of the glass that holds the wine and sits on the stem), which has a direct effect on how we perceive the wine.  The Austrian wineglass manufacturer Riedel predicates a great deal of its marketing on this very concept.  The effect seems to be on the way that the wine's aromas are released and then trapped.  With a larger, tulip-shaped glass, modestly filled, you can swirl the wine around — something that's done not to be pretentious, but rather for the practical reason of releasing aromas which are then concentrated in the headspace of the bowl just above the wine.  The reason this is important is because all of the nuance, depth, and complexity of anything we put in our mouths is perceived not by our sense of taste, but by our sense of smell. (You may remember having a bad cold, at one point or another, that temporarily knocked out your sense of smell… and that everything you ate during that time was frustratingly bland.)  Having the space in a glass for aromas to accumulate simply intensifies your olfactory experience of the wine.  Conversely, a wineglass with a small bowl doesn't allow for this because any aromas that are given off by the wine will rapidly dissipate into the air.

Another marker of quality in wine glasses is the thinness of the bowl's walls.  The reason crystal is used in fine stemware is because it can be made thinner — yet stronger and more resilient — than regular glass.  And that means there's less material coming between you and the wine.  Of course, this is more about aesthetics than sensory mechanics, per se… but wine appreciation already is an aesthetic exercise, right?

And so, very much like a frame for an art piece or photograph, a wine glass serves primarily to contain a wine, but also to do so in a way that's in the least, flattering and complementary — but if you're willing to spend a little more, quite compelling and dramatic.  Whether you're at a point of passionate enthusiasm, casual appreciation, or somewhere inbetween, drinking out of a beautiful, quality-crafted glass heightens the overall experience of tasting and appreciating wine. end


This piece was published in the September/October 2009 issue of Epicurean Charlotte Food & Wine magazine.
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