It's all a matter of common sense: Wine is drunk out of a glass because it tastes better that way. The idea is to smell and taste the wine, not the container. The glass should be clear, so that you can see the wine; it should have a stem, so that you don't hold the bowl, thereby warming a white or camouflaging a red with finger marks; and it should have a clean, simple shape. That's where things get out of line. Have you looked at the wine glasses in a catalogue lately? They have as many shapes as an aerobic dancing class.
There are the traditional European ones: the romer of the Rhine, the trevereris of the Mosel, the thin green stems of Alsace and the fat green stems of Austria. The shapes suit the wines, light and charming. What about a glass for a fine French red? The catalogue recommends the bordeaux and the burgundy.
The bordeaux has a long, slender bowl, with a slightly tapered rim. There's one for whites, holding 7 ounces, and one for reds, holding 10 ounces. There's also one for a larger red, described as "handsome," holding 26 ounces.As long as you don't try to swirl it, you'll have a whole bottle's worth in one glass. The burgundy shape is rounder, balloon-like, with a longer stem. It too comes in different sizes: large and very large.
Now, what would happen if you served a '59 Lafite in a 15-ounce burgundy glass? Or a '64 Bonnes-Mares, de Vogue, in a 10-ounce bordeaux? Would their regional characters be corrupted? Of course not. But just to make sure that there's no favoritism, a standard wine-taster's glass has been designed for the official tastings of the Common Market countries. It holds about 8 ounces, has a medium-length stem and an egg-shaped bowl.
That's fine for contentious tastings, but how dull and unattractive our own tables would be if we poured every wine into identically shaped glasses. A twinkling set of glasses, ascending in size and expectation, is a stimulant in itself: one for the champagne, one for the white wine, one for the red and so on. The producers of crystal are especially good at persuading us that we need an entire range of sizes.
The truth is that crystal has become horribly expensive. Second, the elaborate, cut-glass designs look handsome but detract from the wine's color and are often overly heavy. Third, in order that the sets ascend in perfect order, the so-called sherry and port glasses are usually too small for either. A traditional Spanish copita holds 6 ounces of sherry, so a standard white-wine glass would be fine for the fortifieds.
Brandy suffers from too much glass, rather than too little. The massive balloon is frowned on by cognac producers, who say that a snifter of a capacity anywhere from 5 to 12 ounces is fine. With brandy, it's acceptable to hold the bowl, warming it and the spirit inside, in your cupped hands.
In the continuing war for better-shaped glasses, the most successful campaigners could be the producers of champagne. The shallow saucer is giving way to the narrow flute, a victory for common sense. It seemed a pity to waste those years of effort to get the bubbles into the bottle, only to let them disappear so rapidly. Failing a flute, a standard wine glass is preferable to the saucer-shaped coupe.