Calling all wine geeks: an experiment

Wine Geek glassware experiment

Had some time on my hands, and admitted to myself that I (mea culpa) occasionally drop some coin on extremely discretionary stuff. One of my hobbies is wine, and over the years we've been married (40 is a lotta years!) I have accumulated a motley collection of stemware: some from my student days or the surviving remnants of closeout outlet sales; others as souvenirs of one winery tasting room, event or another; as gifts; included in a wine-bottle package; and, over the past 10 years, purchased to taste/serve/enjoy specific grape varietals or wine types.

THE EXPERIMENT: Given that certain shapes are great for one grape but crummy for another, and that a thin cut rim is more effective at directing a wine to the tip of the tongue than is a "beaded" or rolled rim (found in cheaper non-crystal glasses given away at wineries or bought at the variety store, and in most non-upscale restaurants that serve wine), I decided to take things one step more deeply into geekdom: is a Sauvignon Blanc glass integral to the enjoyment of that varietal? Or is this a merchandising ploy by glassmakers & gourmet shops?

This was inspired by having drunk a glass of Three-Buck-Chuck the other night out of a generous and well-proportioned but cheap (rolled-rim) winery-tour souvenir glass. Not bad for the price, but not much varietal character and sort of "hot," i.e., high-alcohol tasting. (Food was leftover linguine with Swiss chard, oil, garlic and pine nuts Bob brought home from a neighborhood Italian restaurant). Last night, I opened the wine being tested tonight and drank it out of a slightly taller but narrower crystal glass designated by its maker as "Chardonnay." (Food was steamed asparagus & pan-seared sea scallops with parsley-dill gremolata, napped with a pan sauce made by deglazing the fry pan with a little of the wine and a touch of salt, pepper & butter. Told you I had time on my hands). Food & wine were terrific. (Would've tried the experiment with the Three-Buck Chuck, but it disappeared fairly quickly Tues. night--thanks to two other wine-lovers in the house).

THE WINE: Piko Sauvignon Blanc 2007, New Zealand (Marlborough appelation), served straight from the fridge (40F, eventually warming to 45F over the course of the experiment). Its screwcap belies its quality--more and more Down Under wineries are ditching corks in favor of them to avoid spoilage (and help out idiots like me who are forever misplacing foil-cutters and good corkscrews). I chose it because it doesn't have pronounced notes like the telltale eucalyptus of California Sauv Blancs, prominent acidity like Sancerre or the smokiness of Fume Blanc.


LEFT TO RIGHT: Riedel Vitis (discontinued) Loire/Sauvignon Blanc; Schott-Zwiesel Forte White Burgundy/Chablis; Bormioli Chardonnay; Wine Enthusiast polycarbonate Chardonnay; and Riedel Sommeliers Riesling/Young White. All hold about 12 oz., except the Sommeliers, which holds a scant cupful.

METHODOLOGY--pour a jigger of the wine into each glass, and (after eating a hunk of Italian bread and a good couple of sips of water) taste them to see if seemingly minor (to a non-wino) variations in bowl shape & size, rim thickness, opening and material (glass vs. plastic) made a difference. Glasses I ruled out: besides the cheap souvenir glass and the 7-oz crystal ISO tasting glass (from a wine class I took, too small & narrow for anything but rudimentary tasting or enjoying port or sherry), the obvious no-nos such as champagne flutes, heavy formal cut-crystal dinner goblets that are too wide-mouthed for wine despite their designation but make great lethal weapons, round "balloon" glasses designated for Beaujolais or big oaky Chards or iconic white Burgundies like Mersault or Montrachet, big red Pinot Noir and Cabernet glasses, cutesy little German hock glasses that are really good only for show (too colorful, thick and full of foo-foo decorations for serious wine drinking), brandy snifters, tumblers, mugs, rocks glasses, anything with a rolled rim, or disposable party cups/airline tumblers. (Some professional tests throw in a plastic specimen cup such as offered at supermarket samplings as a ringer....not going there).

ABSTRACT: The right height & shape, thin material, rim width and capacity really made only subtle differences. No one glass prominently sent the bouquet to the nose, even after swirling (perhaps because the wine was cold). The winning glass won because it didn't emphasize any one aspect of the wine; the loser will still work far better than any generic rolled-rim wine glass.


RIEDEL VITIS LOIRE: $30, the glass Riedel created for most crisp French Sauv. Blancs (Pouilly-Fume/Fume Blanc, Sancerre, Graves) as well as light & fruity Chenin Blancs. Since discontinued, it's been succeeded by its hideously more expensive Sommeliers counterpart. (Don't ask. I can't afford one). Light lead crystal, machine-blown, hand-pulled stem, tapering up from the bottom (with the top of the stem forming the bottom tip of the bowl) to the middle and then back again up to the rim--the most symmetrical. Tasted fairly balanced, though with the slightest hint of bitterness at the back of the tongue. Did direct the wine straight down the middle of the tongue. Runner-up.

SCHOTT-ZWIESEL FORTE "WHITE BURGUNDY:" $10, described on the mfr's website as appropriate for light & crisp Chardonnays (like Chablis or northern Italian), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio. Elegant shape--reaches its widest point fairly close to the bottom and tapers sharply up to the rim. Very light (titanium, not lead) and strong "Tritan" crystal, but better-balanced in the hand than the Loire glass. Directed some of the wine up to the palate, where its alcohol content was more noticeable as a touch of bitterness & heat, and a bit wider arc than the tip of the tongue, revealing some minerality and muting some acidity. #4 finisher.

BORMIOLI ALLEGRO CHARDONNAY: $8 Classically-proportioned machine-blown lead-free crystal all-purpose glass--like a boiled egg with the little end lopped off. Like the preceding glasses, thin cut nearly invisible rim. The widest point is about an inch higher up on the bowl than on the Schott. Made the wine taste a tad more bitter & hot than the Schott and sent more of it across the tongue to the back of the mouth. Still, not too bad. No mineral flavors. Bronze medalist.

WINE ENTHUSIAST DURACLEAR CHARDONNAY: $5. Identical to the Bormioli except that it's made out of unbreakable polycarbonate plastic instead of crystal; but for the fact that it's insanely light and the rim, while cut and not thick or rolled, is about a mm. thick, would have been indistinguishable from its crystal counterpart. No taste difference between the crystal and polycarb, except perhaps that this glass' thin but still measurable rim sent more of the wine to the sides of the tongue and thus made it taste marginally coarser than did any of the others. Also doesn't "ding" when you tap it. Still tastes pretty good. (This is the one I'm sipping from right now). Brought up the rear, but was not a failure.

RIEDEL SOMMELIERS RIESLING/YOUNG WHITE: $40 (ouch, but one of the cheaper glasses in that range). Shorter & slimmer than the others, it tapers out sharply up from the rim (creating, like the Loire, a pointed bowl-bottom) to the widest point, then tapers back in almost imperceptibly to just below the rim before flaring out ever so slightly again (kind of like honey-I-shrunk-the-Pina-Colada). The smallest of the five, yet the heaviest stem and base--very well-balanced, giving the reassuring feeling it's not likely to be inadvertently knocked over. Thin leaded (24%) crystal, hand-blown, hand-pulled. Even the flared rim is very, very thin. One would expect this glass to wash the wine over and along the sides of the tongue. Wrong. Straight down the middle. Taste was as balanced as a beachball on a trained seal's snout. No bitterness, no heat, very slight minerality along with slight grassy & grapefruit notes. The winner. (At that price, it ought to be).

CONCLUSION: Drinking a Sauvignon Blanc out of a non-balloon Chardonnay glass is nowhere near as taste-altering than putting it in a big wide-bowled glass or confining a Chardonnay to a narrow Loire or "young white" glass. The top two finishers had bowls with pointed rather than rounded or flattish bottoms. All five wineglasses sure beat jelly glasses, straight tumblers, or party cups. And polycarbonate does not have a taste of its own--a fine substitute if you've got kids, cats, or guests who indulge a little too enthusiastically.

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