For a holiday gift, what every sensible wine lover wants is his or her own chateau, preferably in Bordeaux, or perhaps on the Loire. What every wine lover needs is a good set of glassware.
Good glassware touches everything at the core of wine appreciation -- appearance, bouquet and flavor. The right glass can magnify the enjoyment of every bottle of wine in the cellar by intensifying the highly sensual experience of wine tasting.
Amazingly, many wine lovers muddle through life with scarcely a thought given to this most essential piece of hardware. If any thought is given at all, usually it is only to aesthetics. Function is often ignored.
Remedying this situation should be a top priority either as an ideal holiday gift or, for that matter, for the wine lovers to bestow upon themselves at any time. Though the range of wine glassware is nearly infinite, here are some general rules for finding one's way through the crystal forest:
Because lead crystal is microscopically coarser than regular glass, it provides a superior surface for the development of a wine's aroma. Although lead crystal costs somewhat more than regular glass, this is more than repaid in the superior performance. (Note, however, that this also means that undesirable aromas from detergents, the storage closet, or even a cardboard storage box tend to be retained. Wash and dry all glasses correctly before use.)
Elaborately cut glass should be avoided. Such ornamentation can hide the magnificent red "robe" of older wines, which are marked by subtle gradations of color from deep red to amber. The crystal clarity of fine whites may obscured too. For similar reasons, tinted glassware should also be avoided.
Rims should be as thin as possible. A heavy lip interferes with the transfer of the wine from the glass to the palate and feels awkward.
Avoid glasses with flamboyantly flaring tops. Look for a slightly turned-in rim, which concentrates the bouquet.
For most reds, the bigger the glass the better. Six ounces is a minimum, 12 would be better, and 20 or more would be ideal. Of course, the glass is never filled to capacity. Filling to between one-third and one-half is ideal. For whites, 10 to 12 ounces of capacity will suffice. Larger capacities tend to throw the volatile elements of whites out of balance.
The specific glass chosen will depend on the state of one's budget and willingness to look around. However, it is recommended that one start by looking at those made by the Riedel Co., an old-line Bohemian glassworks that specializes in wine glasses. Even if another brand is ultimately purchased, studying the imaginative yet sensible designs of this traditional manufacturer is likely to prove useful.
The Riedel Co.'s sacred creed is that the shape of the glass fundamentally affects the flavor of the wine that is poured into it. Riedel makes well over 40 basic shapes, each one engineered to bring out the best in a particular wine according to grape variety and age of the wine.
The stars of the Riedel line are two huge mouth-blown crystal glasses for the world's greatest red wines, Bordeaux and Burgundy. With a capacity of 37 ounces, more than an entire standard size bottle could be poured into the Burgundy Grand Cru (Model 400/16). However, Riedel recommends that the glass be filled to no more than a quarter full, or about 8 ounces, which permits the full smoky and black cherry aroma of the pinot noir grape to be expressed within the glass. The slightly flared lip of the Burgundy directs a narrow flow to the tip and center of the tongue, leading to less contact with the sour sensitive sides of the tongue, to deemphasize the sour acidity typical of young pinot noir.
At 30 ounces, the Bordeaux Grand Cru (model 400/00) is almost as large as the Burgundy, but the shape is more conical, which directs the wine to the tip of the tongue, where the taste buds are sensitive to sweetness. Although this does not make the wine taste sweet, it ensures that the opulent fruit of the cabernet is sensed before the full weight of the bitter tannins typical of cabernet -- particularly young cabernet -- is felt near the back of the tongue.
If all this sounds subtle and abstract, rest assured the effect of either glass is profound. Young cabernets and pinot noirs taste like they've been to finishing school -- rounder, smoother, with the bouquet of considerably older wines.
Riedel's premium line, the Sommeliers series, ranges in price from $40 to $70 a stem. The Sommeliers Connoisseur set costs $300 and includes both the aforementioned Burgundy and the Bordeaux Grand Crus, as well as appropriate stems for chardonnay, rielsing, and champagne, packaged with a instructional video, all in a black case.
Riedel's less costly (about $20 each) machine-made line, Vinum, follows the design principles of the Sommelier series and is available in many of the same shapes. Riedel advises that the Vinum line is dishwasher-proof. (It also advises that the Sommelier stems can be cleaned in the dishwasher using proper baskets designed for crystal.)
Riedel glassware may be ordered through Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, MacArthur Beverages and many jewelry stores. Excellent shopping locales for other brands of glassware include Williams-Sonoma, Kitchen Bazaar, Conran's and major department stores, including Bloomingdale's, which carries the well-designed, moderately priced (about $8-$10 a stem) Sherry-Lehmann line. Pay special attention to the 20-ounce Rabelais (model 1716) and the Talleyrand 16-ounce (model 1715) stems, both $8-$10.
In addition to Riedel and Sherry-Lehman, two other lines are worthy of special attention:
Impitoyables, a brand of modernistic French-made crystal, is impressive in design and function. Designed as a tool for the professional taster, the Impitoyables glasses have an uncanny ability to bring out hidden dimensions in wines. My principal reservation is that part of their function is to reveal flaws -- hence the name "the pitiless" -- rather than to make wine taste better. Nonetheless, no wine lover would toss these into the fireplace, particularly when packaged in their custom designed carrying cases. Expect to pay close to $50 a stem (in stock or can be ordered through wine shops).
St. George INAO glasses are a fine budget alternative. Some years back, the International Standards Organization (INAO) set out its specifications for the standard wine tasting glass to be used for its sanctioned tastings. While the example of Riedel suggests that there is truly no such thing as an ideal "all purpose" glass, these glasses are designed to be just that. They have much going for them. They are clear, without ornamentation, are made from 24 percent lead crystal and retail for about $3-$4 a stem. They are in stock or can be ordered through wine shops.
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.