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2000s Archive

Shattered Myths

Originally Published August 2004
Expensive crystal? Coffee mug? Jelly jar? Does it really matter what you drink your wine from?

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the moment that’s compelled 13 wine lovers to leave the comfort of home during one of the most dangerous storms of the winter and risk our lives driving through ice and sleet and snow—literally—so we can assemble around a horseshoe table glittering with dozens of crystal wineglasses. We each gently grasp the tapered stem of the glass marked “No. 2, Vinum Montrachet” and raise it expectantly to our lips.

We’re about to answer a question that’s asked innumerable times in wine stores and upscale restaurants and at our own dinner tables across America: Do glasses really change the way wines taste and smell?

“Don’t taste yet,” Victoria Margolis says, and some of us sigh audibly as she postpones our gratification. Margolis represents Riedel, the famed European glassmaker. She’s also driven miles through this ice storm—much as ancient disciples trekked through the desert—to spread the word to this band of potential converts.

Even before we showed up at a winery in Pennsylvania for this event, which Riedel advertised in The Wall Street Journal, all of us had heard the gospel that’s sweeping the food and wine world. Riedel glasses are a “revolutionary” blend of “science and art” (according to Wine Spectator). “The effect of these glasses is profound” (so says legendary taster Robert Parker). Made in a bucolic town in Austria, Riedel’s glasses have dazzled jaded journalists in the heart of American wine country (they “can make a dramatic difference in both the flavor and aroma of wine,” proclaims the San Francisco Chronicle).

Now here we sit, in front of our individual tasting stations, wondering if Riedel glasses will work the same magic on us. There are five glasses at each setting, arranged in a semicircle on a printed paper mat. Four are Riedel’s: One is broader, another is taller, one’s more tapered, but all are delicate and feathery light. The fifth glass is the generic wine goblet you might get at a pizza parlor. It’s dismissively labeled “Joker.”

“Before you taste,” Margolis says, “I want you to swirl it and smell it.” We’re still holding Riedel Glass No. 2, which Margolis’s assistant has filled with Chardonnay made at our host vineyard—which is appropriate, because Riedel has designed this glass specifically to show off Chardonnays. Don’t confuse it with the glass Riedel sells specifically for whites from the Loire, or the glass designed specifically for whites from Alsace, or the glass for German Riesling, or the one for Austria’s own Grüner Veltliner, or the glass for Chablis—to name just a few of the possibilities for whites alone.

The way the Riedel company explains it, the volume and shape of each glass are “fine-tuned” to showcase the aromatics that waft out of the target wine. “There’s a lot of science behind Riedel glasses,” Margolis says. She takes a deep sniff of Chardonnay from No. 2. “Beautiful, straw,” she says.

Before we take a sip, she instructs us to study the diagram in the center of our tasting mats. It’s labeled “Taste Zones of the Tongue.” This “tongue map,” as she calls it, depicts the tongue as a kind of triangle that’s divided into striped or dotted zones, like survey plots. There’s the pointy tip, where the map says you taste sweet; the long, narrow sides, where you taste salt; the wider inner strips, where you taste acid; and, finally, the broad band along the back, where you taste bitter.

The Riedel company says it painstakingly designs the glasses to deliver the wine to a precise target on your own tongue’s map every time you take a sip. As a result, Riedel insists, the wine will hit the exact taste buds that bring out the best flavor notes.

Of course Riedel isn’t the only company that swears its glasses work wonders. Spiegelau will tell you how its stemware produces “aromatic balance of the wine during both the nasal and retronasal olfactions,” and Ravenscroft Crystal brags that its glasses deliver “the essence of the fluids to the proper zones of the palate.” But Riedel has waged the most aggressive marketing campaign and makes the most elaborate scientific claims.

“So go ahead,” Margolis says. “Now you may taste.” There are murmurs of relief around the room. “Close your eyes, and recognize where the wine falls on your palate.” I’m embarrassed to say that as I close my eyes and sip, I can’t pinpoint exactly where the wine’s landing on my tongue. So I check the shiny black booklet that she’s handed out for guidance. “The wide mouth of this generously shaped glass steers the wine mainly to the sourness-sensitive edges of the tongue,” the pamphlet explains, “ensuring that the acidity is sufficiently emphasized to create a harmonious balance with the luscious fruit of the late-harvest, healthy grapes and the sweet toasty aromas of the wine’s aging in oak barrels.”

Margolis looks up from her glass. “Well balanced, very nice. You’re going to get a little citrus on there,” she pronounces. “Did you get that?” She looks at everyone for agreement. “A little lemon?”

But when we pour the Chardonnay into another Riedel glass—designed for another type of white—Margolis puckers her face after taking a sip. She says this glass dumped the wine too far forward on the tips of our tongues, where the map shows we taste sweet. So “what happens is it tastes too sweet,” she says, looking to us again for agreement. “It’s like drinking Riunite.” And everybody laughs.

But nothing could be as bad as pouring the Chardonnay into the generic Joker. “Go ahead,” Margolis says, “give it a swirl and smell.” And before anyone has time to respond, she delivers her verdict. “Actually, I smell nothing,” she says, with a resigned air. “Is anyone getting anything off of this glass?” She raises her eyebrows and looks around the room. We sip. Margolis grimaces. “Salty,” she says, and she puts the Joker down, as though this humble glass were contaminated. “It tastes salty because the wine went to the center of our tongues first.”

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