Wine's World

Glass Sipper

Does a 50-buck wineglass buy you better-tasting wine?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I used to ridicule the Riedel fetishists. Then I became one. Riedel, for those not in the know, is the world’s trendiest brand of wineglass—the Manolo Blahniks of stemware. Wine geeks tote their Riedels to restaurants, dinner parties, and pretty much any place else where quality bottles might be uncorked.

I contracted the Riedel bug several years ago. A local wine shop was offering tastes of the 1988 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee St. Vivant (which is French for “Dream on, peasant”). The only hitch: The store used plastic cups, and Romanee-Conti deserves better than Dixie. So on my way out of the house, I grabbed one of the Riedel Burgundy glasses that my wife had recently bought. To say that I was self-conscious carrying the glass into the store would be putting it mildly—I looked like I was on a perp walk—but the guy pouring was kind enough not to snicker until after I had turned my back. The Romanee-Conti didn’t make much of an impression—it’s difficult to form one based on an eyedropper-sized sample. However, the glass, with its tulip-shaped bowl, long hour-glass stem, and thick, solid base, cut a distinguished figure. It felt good—its lip perfectly sized, its weight flawlessly distributed. I was sold—to a point.

Riedel is one of the great marketing stories of our age. The company, based in the Tyrolean Alps, was founded in the late 1940s by Claus Josef Riedel, a ninth-generation glass-maker who invented the expansive oval-shaped bowl that is now the industry prototype. However, it is his son and successor, Georg, who has given Riedel its global renown and aura of indispensability. He has done this by custom-designing glasses for nearly every major grape variety and persuading legions of oenophiles that specialized stemware is essential to wine appreciation.

According to Riedel, the shape of a glass can either enhance or impede a wine’s aromas and flavors, and the configuration that brings out the best in a California cabernet is not necessarily the right one for an Australian shiraz. Different parts of the tongue are sensitive to different taste sensations, and Riedel claims that, after years of trial and error, he has figured out how best to guide specific wines across the palate. For instance, because red Burgundies tend to be acidic and acidity can sometimes overwhelm the fruit, Riedel has crafted a glass that supposedly steers the wine away from the sides of the tongue, where acidity is detected, and directs it toward the middle, where the wine can better strut its stuff.

The Sommeliers glass, cream of the Riedel crop
The Sommeliers glass, cream of the Riedel crop

Call it genius, call it a crock, but Riedel’s spiel has worked sales magic. The firm now has six lines of glasses, from a basic series up to the hand-blown Sommeliers lead crystal stems. Within each category are a number of glasses. The Vinum line, one class down from Sommeliers, includes glasses for syrah, Brunello di Montalcino, Riesling, tempranillo, and Chianti classico, among other varieties and blends. In short, you can now spend almost as much time and money collecting glasses as you do collecting wines—and that is exactly what many wine drinkers are doing.

I’ve managed to keep my Riedelism under control. In part, that’s because the glasses are a nightmare to clean. They are too fragile for the dishwasher, and detergent can leave a residue that detracts from both the smell and taste of a wine. So can dishwashing soap, which is why many of the cognoscenti counsel against that, too. I’ve heeded their advice, using just scalding hot water, but it isn’t a very effective method, judging by the lip stains that perpetually adorn the rims. The bottoms of the bowls are so deep that I’ve resorted to impaling a piece of paper towel on the end of a knife in order to reach them.

I’ve also found, pace Georg Riedel, that the Bordeaux Vinum glass works just as well for most other styles; I’ve continued to use the Burgundy glass for pinot noir and the champagne flute for bubbly, but everything else—Châteauneuf-du-Papes, Barolos, white Burgundies—goes into the Bordeaux. A few weeks ago, however, I was given reason to reconsider even its necessity. I was out for dinner with friends at a New York-area restaurant with a jaw-dropping list of older wines that were seriously underpriced. We ordered a renowned 1991 Northern Rhone offered at an especially deep discount.

The only problem: The waiter failed to break out the Riedels. I thought about playing the wine asshole but decided to let the faux pas slide. Did it matter? Not that I could tell. If the plebeian glass stifled the emergence of an aroma or two, I was still able to note a half-dozen others. If the wine’s point of impact was an eighth of an inch from my tongue’s G spot, it was still orgasmic. Could my Riedel Bordeaux really have heightened the pleasure?

To answer that question, I decided to put Riedel to the test. One night last week, I pulled out a bottle of the 1999 Château d’Armailhac, a very respectable classified growth from the Pauillac appellation in Bordeaux, and put it on the kitchen table alongside six glasses: a plastic water cup; a water glass; a generic wineglass; a Spiegelau Bordeaux glass ($8); my Riedel Bordeaux Vinum ($18); and the Riedel Sommeliers Bordeaux glass ($55). I chose the d’Armailhac in part because of its youth: I figured its bouquet would be somewhat reticent, making it easier to separate the workhorses from the dogs.

The plastic cup was predictably useless; the d’Armailhac might as well have been fermented Welch’s grape juice. Let me amend my earlier comment: No wine—not even Beringer white zinfandel—deserves Dixie.

Riedel glasses: worth their hefty price tag?
Riedel glasses: worth their hefty price tag?

The water glass did a surprisingly good job of bringing forth the wine’s aromatics. The fatal flaw was its fat lip: To get the wine in my mouth, I had to draw my tongue back; ideally, the tongue should be at the head of the receiving line.

The generic stem, which features a round, short bowl as opposed to the tall, oval-shaped bowl found on both Riedels and the Spiegelau, was a complete flop. Despite furious swirling, no scents were forthcoming; had I been blindfolded, I might have guessed it was water. The glass is also an architectural travesty: Because the bowl curves inward as it rises toward the lip, I was forced to tilt the glass at a sharp angle in order to drink, almost as if I was draining the last suds out of a beer can. The glass is still good enough for guests, of course.

Here’s where things got interesting. The Spiegelau is virtually indistinguishable from the Bordeaux Vinum. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that its stem is shorter and thicker and the bowl’s midsection a little wider. It is also a touch lighter but still has more than enough heft. All in all, the Spiegelau is an appealing glass—and on this occasion, it more than held its own against the Vinum. With barely any coaxing, the Spiegelau sent forth waves of black currant aromas. I was also able to sniff out some toasty oak and a hint of chocolate.

The Vinum, by contrast, stumbled out of the gate. I just about had to suction my face to the rim to pick up the black currants. With a few Hoover-like sucking sounds, I was able to tease out a little spiciness. The Riedel rallied over the course of the experiment, and by the end it was revealing a bit more of the wine than its rival—but only a bit.

For now, I’m sticking with Riedel, but given that the Spiegelau was hardly outclassed and is considerably easier on the wallet—cheap enough to break on a regular basis—my loyalty is no longer unquestioning.

I am sorry to report that the $55 Riedel Sommeliers performed brilliantly. I was determined to hate the glass, convinced it was just an obnoxious fashion accessory. Its appearance did nothing to challenge my preconception: The Bordeaux Sommeliers glass stands nearly a foot high, a modern rendering of a medieval goblet. Although light in weight, its size made it feel cumbersome. In short, the glass seemed a joke—until I put it under my nose, at which point I found myself enveloped in an ethereal cloud of wine, a haze of black currants, tobacco, toasty oak, and, again, that whiff of chocolate. Moreover, the Sommeliers gave the d’Armailhac’s bouquet a subtlety and delineation that was not apparent in the other glasses.

Then came the real surprise. With the other glasses, the differences were obvious only to my nostrils. Once in my mouth, there was no variation: The way the wine tasted flowing out of the Vinum was pretty much the way it tasted gushing out of the plastic cup. With the Sommeliers, I noticed that the fruit seemed both warmer and sweeter. Repeated refills confirmed that this was indeed the case, while also underscoring the point that drinking alone is always a bad idea.

Were it an option, would I buy a set of Sommeliers? If I had a cellar full of Romanee-Conti, Petrus, Chave, and other big-ticket bottles, absolutely. However, the quality of a collection shouldn’t be the determining factor, nor is a full set necessary: If you are really serious about wine and aren’t a klutz, picking up a Sommeliers or two is probably a wise investment; the glass is that good. Just make sure to close the shades when you use it: With your face dipping in and out of it, a glass this size could easily be mistaken for a bong.