Having been in a fraternity, I’ve imbibed from many different sorts of containers: mugs, plastic cups, boxes, the bosom of life. At the time, I was proud of my set of four Crate and Barrel wineglasses (price: $3.99 each), into which I’d pour only the finest Yellowtail Shiraz and Merlot.
What a difference a few years make.
II. Riedel glassware is awesome.
Drink wine long enough and you’ll eventually come across mention of Riedel stemware. Riedel has been in the business of glassmaking for eleven generations, so they’ve not only had time to perfect what they’re doing, they’ve had the time to come up with a whole host of awesome crystal products.
Drinking out of a Riedel glass elevates the wine experience for at least two reasons. First: they’re simply beautiful and well-designed glasses, period. Most of their lines—including the affordable machine-made Vinum series—are made of lead crystal, which classes up any drinking situation. They’re well-weighted and feel good in the hand. Their lips are thin, which avoids the problem some glasses have where it feels like you’re drinking wine from a coffee mug. And, they are simple and elegant.
a. They are aesthetically pleasing.
Does this make a difference? YES. I’m reminded of the study conducted not too long ago where scientists measured the brainwaves of people as they drank what they told were first a cheap and then an expensive bottle of wine. While the bottles were actually the same, the scientists found that people’s brains registered greater enjoyment when drinking what they perceived to be the more expensive wine. Riedel glasses are, at least in my mind, far superior than most of what you can find out there, so I enjoy the drinking experience as a whole more when drinking from Riedel than, say, IKEA.
(This reminds me of my practice, again while I was living in my fraternity, of serving Early Times whiskey from a nice glass decanter. One impressed freshman rushee gushed, “I’ve never had whiskey out of a decanter before.” Little did he know the whiskey was $9.99 a bottle.)
b. They serve a function because they are varietal-specific.
But Riedel glasses go beyond mere aesthetics: they are extremely functional. The second way—the big way—Riedel elevates the wine drinking experience is that most of their series are varietal-specific. Riedel was the first glassmaker to recognize that the shape of a glass affects the perception of the wine inside.
For instance, there are separate glasses for Bordeaux and Burgundy, syrah and tempranillo. But it gets more specific than that. Bordeaux, which is generally predominated by cabernet sauvignon, has its own glass while straight cabernet ALSO gets its own glass. There are glasses for chardonnay—one for Chablis and one for Montrachet. There’s even a glass specifically for Oregon pinot noirs!
c. Is any of this real?
There has been some controversy as to whether all the hubbub is for real. Many scientists scoff at the notion that a wine glass can change the way you taste, smell, and otherwise perceive wine. This counterargument makes intuitive sense: it’s still the same liquid—ain’t nothin’s changin’. And it seems the theory of the “tongue map” on which Riedel—either directly or indirectly—has based its claims has been disproved for at least thirty years. So, whatever “differences” in perception are solely based on heightened expectations.
Here’s the way I see it. People often drink wine for special occasions or to celebrate. Even if there’s nothing special per se going on, people often drink wine with friends, family, and loved ones. Wine is much more than a beverage. It’s the central part of the wine drinking experience, which is based on expectations, on context, on the people around you, the food, the glasses, and, obviously, the wine.
And wine is simply more than “taste.” It’s how the glass feels in your hand and on your lips, how the wine feels on your lips and in your mouth, how the wine smells (which is crucial), etc. The Riedel Burgundy glass is huge, which allows you to properly aerate the wine. Its lips taper in, concentrating the bouquet. Drink a premiers cru from a juice glass and you’ll sense the difference.
III. Which glass is right for me?
If you decide you want to take the plunge and make an investment in Riedel glasses, there are two basic considerations you need to make: which series and then, within the series, which type of glass.
a. On either end of the scale…
Riedel has 12 series of glasses (11 if you don’t count the Restaurant series which isn’t available for personal use), ranging from the basic, glass Ouverture series ($20-$40 for a set of four) to the ultra-expensive, hand-blown lead crystal Sommeliers series ($60-$120 per stem).
The Ouverture series is right for you if you want basic, no-frills glasses. You don’t have to worry about varietals here; rather, there are glasses for red wine, white wine, champagne, and a few other sorts of beverages. These are great if you intend on entertaining often and don’t want to worry about whether your rowdy friends will break a stem or two.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Sommeliers series, which is sold by the stem. These would be great as gifts or if you intend on doing a lot of tasting by yourself in your chateau.
b. Go for the Vinum, man.
I personally use the Riedel Vinum series, which is machine-blown lead crystal. There are different glasses for different varietals: the stunning tall Bordeaux glasses, the generous Burgundy glasses, the very multi-purpose zinfandel/riesling grand cru glasses. These cost about $40-$50 for a set of two.
But which Vinum glass should you purchase? Well, what do you drink more of? I like the Burgundy glasses because they are good not only for Burgundian pinot noir but pinot noir from other regions. They are good for white Burgundies but also for bigger chardonnays from, say, California. However, if your tastes run towards cabernet, go for the Bordeaux glasses. If you love Chateauneuf-du-Pape or heavier, funkier wines, you might consider the stately syrah glasses.
As stated above, the zinfandel/riesling grand cru glasses are a very traditional shape and are good for both red and white wines. I would recommend the sauvignon blanc glasses if you like lighter, cleaner white wines and dessert wines. Most of the glasses will accentuate many different varietals or blends.
c. Final verdict?
I’m not sure whether it’s because of the “tongue map,” anticipation, heightened aesthetic appreciation, or a combination thereof, but I have found that the wines I drink do taste better in Riedel glasses. Pick up a few stems and see for yourself!