Maximilian Riedel needed only a few minutes to shatter my views about wineglasses.
Riedel (pronounced REE-dle) is the 11th generation of his family in the glassware business. His grandfather, Claus, revolutionized wine stemware in the 1950s by developing different glass designs for different types of wine. Today the name Riedel is synonymous with fine crystal.
In essence, Claus Riedel’s concept was that the glass can improve the wine, or at least our experience of it. It appealed to wine collectors, who could now collect various types of glassware: a particular stem for chardonnay, another for sauvignon blanc, yet another for Riesling, not to mention those for cabernet sauvignon, syrah and sangiovese. More-neurotic wine lovers were gripped with the fear that drinking from the wrong glass would diminish their vino-cred.
Personally, I prefer simplicity: one set of glasses for white wines, a larger version for reds. How expensive depends on what you drink. For plonk, a water glass is fine. First-growth Bordeaux or a cult Napa cabernet, however, deserves a fine stem that can emphasize the wine’s subtleties — the very qualities we are paying for in a wine of that caliber. Riedel expressed a similar sentiment.
“I won’t ask you to buy a $100 glass to drink a $10 wine,” he said. Riedel’s company produces several lines of stemware, ranging from $12 to $125 per glass. We spoke via Skype last month as he took a break from the holiday party at his company headquarters in Kufstein, Austria. We tasted three wines using the Riedel Vinum XL line of glasses, which retails for about $35 a stem. The wines and glasses were provided by Riedel’s publicist.
We tasted a Deutz rosé champagne ($60) and a Louis Jadot Pommard 2009 Burgundy ($50), both of which excelled in the pinot noir glass (though the Pommard didn’t need a special glass so much as 10 more years in a cellar).
What blew me away was the chardonnay — the J. Lohr Riverstone 2012 chardonnay from Monterey County, Calif., to be exact. It sells for about $15, often less. We tasted it first in the Vinum XL Riesling Grand Cru glass, a sleek tulip a bit smaller than what I would call a standard white wine glass. The wine tasted one-dimensional, oaky, rather clumsy.
“My first impression is bitter, then salt,” Riedel said. “I don’t get the fruit. What I like about chardonnay is the texture, and I don’t get that here.”
Then we tasted the same wine from the Vinum XL Montrachet glass, an unattractive globe-shaped bowl that reminded me of cheap glasses I’d bought years ago that supposedly were for pinot noir.
“Many people think this is a red-wine glass,” Riedel scoffed. “It’s horrible for red!”
But it was wonderful for the J. Lohr chardonnay. The wine was suddenly rich and expressive, with coconut and cream and a hint of ginger and this and that and whatever.
Here was a glass that was more than twice the price of the bottle of wine, making that wine taste much more expensive. But was the difference a function of the cost — the quality of the glassware — or the shape? After we finished and Riedel returned to his holiday party, I rummaged through my kitchen cabinets to find those old “pinot noir” glasses that resembled his fancier Montrachet stem. I wiped years of dust off one and repeated the tasting, including my everyday stemware.
In my usual white wine glass, similar to but slightly larger than the Riedel Riesling Grand Cru, the chardonnay still tasted oaky and awkward. In the cheap pinot noir glass — well, it was awkward: It dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. But it did taste better than in my regular glass, though the difference was not as dramatic as with the Riedel.
If you’re skeptical that the glass makes a difference, sip your favorite wine out of whatever glasses you have on hand at home. If you can detect a difference between wine from a highball glass and a tumbler, or a water glass and a Pilsener, then you might reconsider your wineglasses. And if you do, Max Riedel will have some to show you.