A classic wine joke goes, “It doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full, there is clearly room for more wine.” That may technically be true, but most wine experts would be horrified if you filled your glass to the brim with wine. Most wine glasses are specifically designed for swirling, which engages the flavors and scents of the wine; when your glass is too full, the experience is ruined. The wine glass you pick has a greater impact on a wine tasting than you might imagine. When wine collectors get wrapped up in the thrill of the bottle hunt, it’s easy to forget the tools needed to enjoy the wine when it arrives. Wine glasses are a commonly overlooked part of wine collecting, and one that is shrouded in myth and falsehoods. Nearly every collector you meet will have a different opinion on what makes a good wine glass, but many experts agree on a few sets of standards.
Three Wine Glass Myths, Debunked
Before giving you tips on how to choose the best wine glasses, we need to debunk three common wine glass myths that confuse wine collectors.
The first myth states that you need to use a wide-mouthed Champagne coupe or Champagne flute to get the most out of a fine producer like Moet & Chandon. This is blatantly false; Champagne enthusiasts have used flutes and coupes for so many decades that they now consider these glasses to be essential, when in fact other glasses might be equally effective, if not more effective.
Scientists found that vintage-style Champagne coupes tend to be less effective than Champagne flutes when it comes to concentrating the wine’s scent. The coupe has a wide bowl and brim, which disperses carbon dioxide, preventing drinkers from getting a full nose of the Champagne. However, Wine Enthusiast insists that some wider bowls can be more effective than Champagne flutes at bringing out flavors. Although the bubbles dissipate more quickly in a wide bowl, the taste improves as it is exposed to air. Some experts recommend using a standard white wine glass as a happy medium between a flute and a coupe. These glasses have long stems and a bowl that is slightly more narrow than a standard red wine glass (but wider than a flute), which gives drinkers plenty of nose while letting the flavors breathe.
A second wine myth is the idea that crystal glasses are inherently better than those made from glass. In reality, crystal glassware simply makes the wine look more appealing to drinkers, since it has minerals in it that refract light. Most crystal glasses are made with either lead monoxide or zinc and magnesium oxide, which break up the light hitting the glass. The result is a glass that is shinier and more mesmerizing than simple glassware. However, crystal glasses do not impact the flavor of the wine at all. In fact, crystal glasses are far more fragile than standard glassware, since crystal is typically spun in thinner layers to increase the level of light refraction. If you use your glasses every day, you need a set that is relatively durable; the best choice is to save your crystal for special occasions.
Finally, some in the wine world have propagated the myth that you need a specialized wine glass for every varietal-specific bottle you own. This is the kind of tip that works well for wine drinkers who only regularly drink and collect a few varietals, but for those collectors who own 1,000 bottles or more in a broad range of varietals, owning glassware specific to every varietal is simply a waste of storage space. At least 18 varietal-specific glasses are considered standards for different wines, including Bordeaux glasses, hocks, and sherry glasses. If you get the recommended six glasses per set for each of these 18 glass styles, you’re looking at storing at least 108 wine glasses, most of which you’ll never, or rarely, touch. A better option is to invest in one or two standard glass sets that can hold most types of wine, then supplement your glass collection with a few varietal-specific glasses, based on which wines you drink most often.
Invest in Two Quality Basic Glass Sets
Generally, if you have a wide range of wines in your cellar, you should have a set of six or eight standard red wine glasses and an equal number of standard white wine glasses. Red wine glasses have larger bowls and longer stems than standard white wine glasses because red wines typically need more space to breathe than white wines. When you pick your red wine glasses, make sure they are sturdy, have bowls large enough to hold a decent portion of wine (leaving enough room for swirling) and have the longest stems you can find. White wine glass brims can be slightly more narrow than their red wine counterparts, since most white wines are not as aromatic as reds. In order to get a full nose on a subtle Riesling, you need a relatively narrow glass brim to funnel the scents into one concentrated spot.
Avoid all wine tumblers; although these glasses look sleek and modern, the wine in them quickly warms up as it makes contact with your palms. Stemmed glasses, on the other hand, keep the wine at a constant temperature as it is drunk. And, unless you’re buying black wine glasses for a blind tasting, invest only in clear wine glasses, rather than those that are opaque or decorated. To truly appreciate a wine, you need a full view of its natural colors and texture.
So What Types of Wine Glasses Do You Really Need?
Having two sets of standard glasses, one for reds and one for whites, will give you tasting options for the bulk of your collection, but this doesn’t mean you should skimp on your beloved varietals. You’ll still want one glass set that is crafted specifically for your favorite wine varietal in order to fully express the subtleties of the aromas and flavors of the wine. For example, if you have a large collection of Sauternes in your cellar, and you frequently taste these wines, you may want to invest in a set of Sauternes wine glasses in addition to your standard wine glasses. Like other standard white glasses, Sauternes glasses feature a long, durable stem with a wide bowl at the base. Where they differ is in the brim, which tapers out slightly on Sauternes glasses, broadening just around the lip of the glass. This keeps these traditionally sweet white wines open enough to express the sweet flavors of the wine, but not so open as to dilute the aromatics.
The same goes for red wines. If you have a great deal of red Bordeaux in your collection, consider buying a set of large Bordeaux glasses. These are some of the largest glasses available on the market, sometimes almost twice the size of a standard red wine glass. Bordeaux wines usually need all of the extra space they can get, since their flavors are often so complex that they require hours of decanting and air exposure to release each flavor component.
But before you invest in a full set of varietal-specific glasses, test your standard glasses on the wines you drink most often. Sometimes, your standard wine glasses will bring out the wine’s best qualities without requiring a more specific set of glasses. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz both tend to perform very well in a standard red wine glass. Save your varietal-specific glasses for the varietals that suffer in taste when poured into a standard glass. For example, a fine vintage Port is probably not going to taste best when served in a standard red wine glass, since most Port wines need a narrow brim to concentrate their aromatics and keep their flavors rich. If you have quite a few Port vintages in your collection, you should prioritize having real Port glasses, since this wine is more temperamental when placed in a standard glass. Using this method, you can save hundreds of dollars (and a lot of pantry space) on useless wine glasses, while still getting the most out of the wines you drink most often.
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Image source: By Patrick Kennedy (originally posted to Flickr as Wine glasses) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons