Have you ever stood before a store shelf full of wine glasses and just shook your head? Or flipped the pages of a wine gadgetry catalogue, or Googled wine glasses? The choices are befuddling. Separate glasses for cabernet sauvignon and merlot, chardonnay or Riesling. Old World pinot noir, New World syrah, even Norton and Oregon pinot noir — every wine but Perth Pink seems to have its own glass!
And the prices. Glasses can cost more than $100 per stem. Go fancy, and you can easily deplete your bank account while filling a storage vault with delicate handblown crystal, all without tasting a drop of vino.
Relax. Whether you are a wine novice or a regular imbiber, you can get by with a modest collection of stemware. Three sizes — for red, white and sparkling — are enough, but to be honest you could get by with two (one for still wines, another for sparkling) or even just one. And you don't have to spend a fortune to find glasses that will treat your wine with respect.
A wine glass is more than just a vehicle for getting wine to our lips. Its shape and size contribute to our enjoyment of the wine. It should be clear, not colored or engraved with fancy filigree, so we can assess the wine's clarity and color. That's why we hold the glass by the stem: Greasy fingerprints obscure the wine's color, and the heat from our hands can warm the wine (which, of course, you are serving at the perfect temperature to release its esters). Nothing sets wine nerds' hair on fire more than a photo of some celebrity holding a wine glass by the bowl.
Enter the stemless glass. It has the advantage of being less snobby and more stable in the dishwasher. It's also harder to knock over on a crowded table. For casual drinking, this is fine, and it sends a message that you are unpretentious. For more formal dinner parties, or for higher-end wines, you may want to use traditional stemware.
The bowl of the glass should resemble a tulip — broader at the base and narrow toward the rim. The narrower rim focuses the aroma and guides the wine to your palate rather than down your shirt. Your glass should have a thin "cut rim" rather than a thicker "rolled rim" for the same reason. These are often called Bordeaux-style glasses. Burgundy glasses, traditional for more aromatic pinot noir and chardonnay wines, are wider balloon shapes.
A smaller, narrower bowl will direct acidic wines, such as a Riesling or sauvignon blanc, toward the tip of your tongue, while a bigger, wider glass will direct fleshier, tannic reds, such as cabernet sauvignon, to the middle of your palate — all in the hopes of balancing the wine and showing it at its best. The Riedel company, based in Austria, developed this distinction by designing separate glasses for each variety and style of wine, thereby contributing to our choices and anxiety over the need to buy lots of stemware.
Riedel has various lines of glasses that can cost up to $120 per stem, but a great all-purpose Riedel is called Degustazione; marketed for restaurants, it sometimes shows up at retail for about $10 a glass. Another high-end manufacturer, also from Austria, is Zalto, at about $70 a stem. These glasses are very delicate and a favorite of many sommeliers, so you may see them in high-end restaurants.
An excellent all-purpose glass called The One is nicely balanced, resembles the distinctive shape of a Zalto and costs about $15. Of course, there's The One for reds and The One for whites, so there's really The Two for your collection. Other brands such as Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau (owned by Riedel) produce affordable, quite serviceable stemware.
And then there's sparkling wine. We've all toasted a bride and groom with cheap fizz in a flat glass called a "coupe," and celebrated New Year with bubbly in a flute. But if you're enjoying champagne or other sparklers with a meal, consider investing in sparkling wine glasses shaped more like a tulip than a flute. These will allow the wine to express its flavors. Or, just use a white-wine tulip glass; you may lose some of the bubbles, but you will gain the flavors and wine nerd cred for ditching the flute.
So what glass should you buy? Look for something comfortable in your hand and comfortable for your wallet. If you drink wine only occasionally, one model will do. If you're a regular imbiber, consider a red glass and a white glass, and maybe one for sparkling. (You will want enough of each for your family and guests.) I recommend stemware costing about the same as the average price you pay for a bottle of wine. If you are a collector and regularly drink expensive stuff, investing in fine stemware makes sense — the fancier glass will help express the nuances you are paying for. Whether you need separate sets for Viognier and chardonnay is up to you.