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Wine glasses and glassware

by Lisa Johnston

The humble wine glass has become as important as the wine that you drink from it -- and, on occasion, even more important. With so many shapes, sizes and designs available today, doing some research before you hit the shops may bring some much needed clarity and direction.

Firstly, consider just how many glasses you will need along your wine journey. This may depend on the types of wines you drink. For example, if you prefer red wines and only occasionally drink white wines, or vice versa, then you could get away with owning just one general purpose style of glass. 

However, if you regularly entertain, you would probably like to have more than one style of glass covering various levels of formality -- picture the tingling sense of anticipation on seeing an elegant table laden with hints of what is to be poured with dinner. At a minimum, your wish list table setting would contain one glass each for red and white wines plus perhaps a sparkling flute and a small dessert/fortified wine glass.  If you drink across a range of wines and enjoy a wide range of entertaining occasions -- well, you may just need a new cupboard to house your collection.

Wine glass - goblet shape

Goblet glass
Artwork: Kate Lyons-Dawson

Basic shapes of wine glass

The choice of glass shape is as individual as your choice of wine but there are a few things to consider when choosing your glassware.

A wine glass has a bowl, which holds the wine, and usually a foot and a stem. The interaction between the air, the wine and your nose and mouth can dramatically enhance any wine-tasting experience and this interaction starts in the bowl.

There is a plethora of shapes available on the market ranging from very funky shapes to varietal specific glasses. The shape of the bowl usually falls into three main wine glass styles -- a goblet with its wider bowl, a tulip shape with a narrower opening and the sparkling wine flute. Each shape and size of bowl suits a particular type of wine better than other shapes.  Some producers such as Luigi Bormioli and Schott Zwiesel offer over 30 different shapes of wine glass, and Riedel offers over 30 individual bowl shapes. In contrast to the Europeans, Australian glassware designer Plumm produce five bowl shapes which are carefully attuned the body (weight) of a wine.

There are also many shapes available now or that were favoured in the past, such as glassware with a more conical bowl shape, which may be more about style or fashion and less about advantages over the rounder bowl shapes.

The importance of wine glass shape and size

Wine glass - tulip shape

Tulip glass
Artwork: Kate Lyons-Dawson

The larger the bowl, the more the aromas are amplified but only up to a point. The larger glasses give the wine a greater surface area to interact with oxygen allowing the wine to 'open up', meaning the wine's aromas are released and the flavours start to achieve their full potential. More delicate wines require smaller bowls as these delicate aromas need to be concentrated and focused toward the nose for you to fully appreciate them. The bigger and wider the bowl, the larger the swirl surface that is available to push more air into the wine. Apart from allowing the aromas to come to life, one of the other important reactions of air upon wine is the softening effect on tannins; hence younger more tannic wines benefit from a larger bowl.

The height of the bowl will also act to push the aromas together or allow them to layer in the glass -- the taller the bowl, the more layered the aromas can become. Finally, the size of the bowl's opening will also dictate how concentrated the aromas are at the top of the glass, focusing them into the nose.  Some bowls will have a curled back lip that directs the wine to certain parts of your mouth which enhance the flavours of the wine.

Therefore, fragrant, more delicate wines such as Pinot Noir (Burgundy) and Beaujolais perform better with a wider bowl. Wines that are less aromatic and more robust in character such as Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon will perform better in a taller, tulip-shaped glass which converges the aromas to the nose. These medium-to-large tulip-shaped glasses make very good general 'all-rounders', working well across most styles of wine -- whites and reds -- with the added bonus of taking up less space.  In fact, tulip-shaped glasses are often used in wine tastings.

White wines need smaller glasses mostly due to their need to be chilled but also because these wines usually have more delicate aromas made even more so, incidentally, by being chilled. The smaller glasses ensure the wines remain cooler because they are topped up with chilled wine more often.  Too large a pour will mean that your wine will be warm by the time you finish the glass. Aromatically, the same principals of shape apply but usually a taller tulip-shaped bowl works well.  Because most white wines have no noticeable tannins, there is less need for contact with the air and so less need for a larger bowl.

Do I really need a special glass for dessert wines and sparkling wines?

Champagne glass

Champagne glass
Artwork: Kate Lyons-Dawson

Dessert wine, which is already very intense, may be served in a glass with a small tulip-shaped bowl as only a small serving is needed.  This is also the reason these wines are commonly sold in half bottles. If you drink dessert wine often, then it is worth seeking a smaller version of the standard white wine glass for the purpose.

Sparkling wine should be treated differently to still table wines. The flute, being tall and narrow, means that the bubbles float to the top of the wine, prolonging contact and opening up the wine as they float.  The tall, thin shape is also better at keeping the wine cool and helps to retain the bubbles in the wine. Some flutes come with an anchoring 'etch' in the bottom of the bowl. The bubbles will continue to form at this point for longer than a non-etched glass.

Wine glasses - the finer choices

Stem vs stem-less

How tall the stem of the glass is or what volume the glass holds, is purely up to you and your personal style.  Over the past five years, stem-less wine glasses have grown enormously in popularity due to their style, ease of use and flexibility. There is some debate about just how much your fingertips change the temperature of the glass and thus the wine, but this does depend on how you hold your glass and obviously, on where you leave your glass between sips. You also need to think of how clean the glass will stay if your guests are going to use the same glass throughout a meal.

Lead crystal vs glass vs other types of 'glass'

The main component of any glass or crystal is silica or sand.  Glass becomes 'crystal' when metal oxides are added to give the glass various properties depending on the metal and the end use.   'Lead crystal' can contain up to 33% lead oxide which has the benefit of making it easier to decorate or 'cut'. The significance to the drinker is that crystal has better clarity and shine than glass but it lacks the robustness of glass. Many people will keep their crystal glassware for occasional use and use glass for everyday occasions for this reason.  Plastic wine 'glasses' are great for outdoor occasions but the wine may react with these glasses so they are not recommended for finer drinking occasions.

Clarity

Being able to see the wine and its colour does enhance the enjoyment of the wine. This is also why a clean and undecorated bowl is as practical as it is elegant.  Streaks, cloudiness, fingerprints and refractions from decorative embellishments, particularly those glasses that are cut glass or crystal, can make the wine seem visually faulty. A stem also assists in keeping the fingerprints off the bowl while in use.

What about a decanter?

It seems that decanting wine is coming back into style, particularly with the popularity of the screw cap which strictly limits the amount of oxygen that interacts with the wine compared to cork. Pouring a wine into a decanter, or 'decanting' a wine, allows oxygen to interact with the wine on a broader scale than just pouring into a glass and swirling.

How to decant wine

To properly decant a wine, carefully pour the wine, which has been in an upright position for a day, from the bottle in a single smooth motion. As you reach the bottom portion of wine, check for sediment; a bright light shining through the bottle will make this easier. Once this sediment is about to flow into the decanter, stop pouring the wine.

Choosing a decanter

When you are choosing which glasses to purchase, you might want to consider whether to add a wine decanter to your wish list. There are many styles of decanters to choose from but the most important consideration is actually how easy they are to pour. Some of the most stylish are not so elegant to use as they do not feel balanced in the hand when filled with wine.  You should definitely feel the weight and balance of the decanter before you purchase.  Some are also very challenging to clean, but you can buy specialist decanter cleaners from your decanter retailer that bend to reach hard to get to places without scratching.

It is not recommended to store wine in a decanter as the wine will oxidise quickly, even if the decanter has a plug or a bung. If you do not finish the wine in the decanter, pour it back into the bottle and seal well with a vacuum seal to store for later. If the decanter is lead crystal, as many of them are, there is also the possibility of the lead leaching into the wine.

Serving etiquette

Before opening the bottle and drinking the wine, there are some things to remember:

Firstly, the formal position of the wine glass on the table is to the top right of the place setting and if you have multiple glasses (including water) per setting, follow the same rule as for cutlery - inside to out or left to right depending on the courses they are to be served with.

Next, consider the temperature of the wine that you are serving and, of course, the room temperature.  The general rule of thumb is that most red wines, those full-bodied wines with tannin, are served at cellar temperature or 16o - 18oC.  Much cooler and you will enhance the tannins and bitterness in the wine; much warmer and wine may appear to be hard, hot and thin. Softer, less tannic reds can be served very lightly chilled.

Without the need to consider the tannin levels, most white wine and rosé wine requires chilling to counter some of the acidity which contributes to the refreshing nature of these wines.  The same can be said for sparkling wine, however, complex vintage sparkling wines and many Champagnes perform better with just a light chilling rather than being cold. 

Finicky this may be, but if you are serving chilled wine, consider the temperature of the glass you are pouring into:  you immediately start warming up your wine by pouring into a room temperature glass. So you might like to quickly chill your glasses to match the temperature of the wine. 

Finally, when you are pouring, you should only pour to the widest part of the bowl of the glass even if it seems to be only a little liquid in the glass. Do not fill it to the top or you will not have room to swirl the wine and let the air do its thing.  Following this, while 250 ml pours are quite common in a bar or pub, it is not necessary or recommended at all to do this at home.  Of course, sparkling wine does not need swirling so you can fill these glasses to around three-quarters full.

Washing

To dishwasher or not to dishwasher: that is the burning question. The experts have assured me that your wine glasses, whether lead crystal or glass, can go into the dishwasher but common sense must prevail.  Restaurants and bars do use dishwashers for their stemware which are usually made of glass for robustness but they may a) use no detergents, and b) will probably have a special rack to put into their specially made dishwashers.

If you have any doubts as to whether your delicate and often expensive glasses will survive intact and unsullied in your dishwasher, it is best to rely on the traditional methods. These are:

  • to wash your glasses in the hottest water you can withstand and let them air dry upside down. Be careful when rinsing your crystal to make sure that the water is still warm as sudden changes in temperature may cause cracks in your glasses
  • to remove stains that will not come out with a hard rub with a soft clean cloth, you may want to use just a little detergent and rinse very well
  • hold the glass by the stem over some steam and polish with a very soft clean cloth to get that glittering professional shine before using them again.

The reason for this hard labour is that you do not want to leave any residual detergent in the bowl to influence your next glass of wine, and you do not want any streaks that will take away the clarity of the glass. The use of harsh detergents such as those for dishwashers can etch marks into your glasses; just look at the condition of your everyday glassware to see what effect your dishwasher may have on your wine glasses over time.

Storing your wine glasses

Storing your glassware can become a major issue if you start building up collections of different shapes and designs. Some of these glasses are very large and/or tall as well. You do need to store them away from environments with strong smells of cooking and other aromas (it could also be said that storing them in their cardboard boxes may cause them to absorb musty box smells). They are best stored rim up to prevent chips and scratches that may occur when you are removing them from storage.

 

© Lisa Johnston September 2010