The summer after I graduated from high school, I stayed at my grandmother’s house for a few weeks to help her with a gardening project. After a long day of digging in the dirt, she’d usually relax on the couch with her knitting and a chilled glass of Robert Mondavi Chardonnay. One evening, her foot was hurting her, so she asked me if I could go to the kitchen and pour her a glass of her favorite wine. I dutifully filled the glass to the halfway mark and handed it to her. She raised her eyebrows and said, “I might be a little old lady, but I’m no teetotaler. That’s a mouse-sized glass of wine.” I refilled the glass almost to the brim, and she smiled, “Now we’re talking!”
How high you should fill a wine glass depends on the setting and your personal preferences. Some wine enthusiasts, like my grandmother, prefer to slowly sip on the same glass for an hour, letting it warm up slightly toward the end. Others prefer small pours that let them enjoy their wine while it’s at the ideal temperature.
Why Fill Levels Matter
Usually, a wine will taste better when it has been aerated for a few minutes, because this releases the wine’s complex aromatics. This is why many sommeliers recommend decanting your best wines before you drink them. However, if a wine is exposed to too much oxygen, it can start to oxidize. Most wine glasses are designed to find the right balance of wine and oxygen for different types of varietals. White wine glasses are usually narrower than red wine glasses because delicate white wines need far less oxygen to release their aromatics than heavier reds.
How high you fill a wine glass matters because you need to have plenty of space in your glass to swirl the wine and help release its aromatics. If you fill the glass all the way to the top, the wine will taste closed-off and tight, and you won’t be able to swirl it without spilling. Alternatively, if you don’t fill the glass high enough, you could expose the wine to too much oxygen (and your guests likely won’t appreciate such a small pour). When in doubt, fill any wine glass no more than halfway to the top.
Pouring Still White Wine
I usually fill white wine glasses about halfway to the top. This leaves me with enough space to swirl the wine in case it tastes a little too closed off, yet it protects more fragile wines from excess oxygen. In short, I’m able to add as much oxygen to the glass as I need, based on how the wine tastes. However, you also have the option of filling the glass close to the brim in casual settings. Sometimes, I’ll chill a white wine until it’s almost too cold to drink, then I’ll fill my glass nearly to the top. From here, I slowly sip on the wine and take note of how the flavors evolve in the glass. Usually, as the wine heats up in my hands, the flavors start to improve. This is a good way of finding the ideal serving temperature for my favorite white wines.
Pouring Sparkling Wine
You don’t have to use a flute to serve Champagne. Studies have found that Champagne actually tastes better when it’s exposed to a bit more oxygen than a flute can provide (don’t use a coupe glass, though, as you’ll lose the Champagne’s bubbles too quickly). I recommend serving your sparkling wine in a standard white wine glass, and filling the glass less than halfway. For delicate aged Champagne, consider serving it in a narrower glass, and filling that narrow glass about 3/4 of the way full to keep the bubbles lively. A younger, livelier sparkling wine can handle more exposure to oxygen and more exposed surface area, since it takes longer for its bubbles to dissipate.
Pouring Red Wine
How high you should fill a red wine glass depends on whether you’re in a casual setting or a professional tasting event. In most tasting events, sommeliers serve red wine in a wide-mouthed glass that’s no more than one-third full. This gives you plenty of room to swirl without risking a spill. I usually drink my red wines at home with this method as well, since it makes almost all wines taste better, and doesn’t let your wine warm up too much before you’ve finished it. That said, if you’re having a glass of wine with dinner, and the wine isn’t the center of attention, it’s ok to fill the glass up to the halfway mark. The important thing to remember is that you should never fill a red wine glass to the brim, even in casual settings; it will make your wine taste bland.
Pouring Fortified Wine
Fortified wine is difficult to serve because you can’t drink too much of it in a single setting, yet it tastes better when you serve it in a large glass. Traditional Port glasses only hold about six and a half ounces of wine, and these are usually filled almost to the top. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t give the wine space to breathe. Instead, I usually pour Port into a standard glass, but I fill it less than a quarter of the way up, which gives the wine space and is an ideal serving portion for such a rich dessert wine.
Finding out how high you should fill a wine glass requires some trial and error. These guidelines can give you a general sense of how to serve different styles of wine, but you don’t have to follow these rules religiously. Make a note of what works for you in what situations–whatever helps you enjoy your wine the most is probably just fine.
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