Does Size Matter? The Great Glassware Debate!

Fifty years ago, Maximilian Riedel could have been a standout example of that archetypal staple of the American Retail frontier, the Traveling Salesman.

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I marvel at the amount of miles this Guru of Glassware logs in pursuit of his evangelical mission to spread the gospel of the glass; everywhere I turn within the admittedly finite country-of-the-mind that is the world of wine, I see Maximilian. He’s at this tasting, he’s at that restaurant, he’s profiled in this magazine, he’s on that television program. He’s everywhere.

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And everywhere he goes, he leaves a trail of questions in his wake. This constantly replenished pool of incredulity could probably best be summed up with one querulous word, “Really?” Meaning, does glassware really make as much of a difference as Mr. Riedel would have us believe?

This is a question we field with startling regularity in the tasting room; for whatever reason, this topic seems to be of great interest to a great number of wine-drinking people. To what extent this is due to our Sultan of Stemware’s world-wide missionary endeavors I can’t say; it may in fact be due to the ever-increasing interest in wine in general in this country; it may have to do with the recession (in that, if people are staying in and eating at home more often, they’re going to need to up their serving chops as to the hows, whys, whens, and wheres of presenting wine with a meal); it may have to do the “manufactured need monster” that can often be capitalism (meaning, we might not actually need the glasses, but the market needs us to need them!); or it might simply be one of those cultural zeitgeist moments where, for whatever reason, a topic just captures the public imagination. Regardless, I personally find it quite an interesting topic, and accordingly, I enjoy discussing it.

My/our stance here at RIDGE is definitely a stance in favor of the notion that glassware shape/size has an important effect on one’s ability to fully appreciate what a wine has on offer, and I generally present two key reasons for this:

1) Controlled Aeration: In the same way that a decanter theoretically affords a wine a controlled environment in which to interact with oxygen, and develop accordingly as far as “opening up”, I believe a wine glass bowl does the very same thing (on an admittedly smaller scale), and that different shapes/sizes of glassware achieve this in varying ways, with different environments being theoretically more or less suited to the particular requirements imposed by any given wine.

2) Deployment of Wine across the Palate: Assuming that different areas of our mouths/palates do indeed experience flavor/taste differently (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami, etc.) then in theory, it should make sense that the order in which these different areas experience a wine will have an effect on our perception of the wine itself. As a weird example, if you eat a piece of peanut butter toast peanut-butter-side up, you’ll experience its flavor very differently than if you bite into it in the rather more unorthodox fashion of peanut-butter-side down. In the same way, if you drink a cab from a champagne flute (and by the way, I loathe champagne flutes, vastly preferring the Coupe Glass instead, which is a whole other story), all the wine goes straight to the middle of your tongue first, before it gets swirled around throughout the full range of one’s palate; alternatively, if you sip said cab from a big huge goblet, it will send the wine spilling into your cheeks, across the sides of your tongue, and between your lips and teeth all at once, thereby in theory giving you a very different picture of the wine.

In the end, I think the issue at hand can best be understood as one of trying to eke out as much complexity, and accordingly potential enjoyment, from the experience of drinking a glass of wine. One of course begins with the wine itself; the more the wine has on offer, the greater the potential for oenophilic satiation. And there are of course the somewhat more obtuse tertiary factors that one can group under the umbrella of “environmental factors”: time of day, time of year, alone vs. with company, solo vs. with food, etc. Anyhow, glassware, looked at in this fashion, becomes yet one more way in which the taster can expand the potential of the taste, and if in fact glassware can potentially eke even a little bit more satisfaction from the wine experience (or, conversely, sabotage it), then I think one owes it to oneself to take at least a little advantage of what “proper” glassware can bring to the table. Does one need a completely different glass for every single different type of wine? Probably not. But having even a few different options on hand can make a big difference.

If anyone is interested in some more thoughts on this matter, my post above originated with a contribution I originally made to a very interesting thread on westcoastwine.net about the influence of stemware.

In addition, should you be so curious, there is, on the Riedel website, a “Wine & Glass Guide,” whose purported purpose is to help one select the proper glass for any given wine and/or wine occasion. You can find it here.

And yes, full disclosure, the glasses we use in the Monte Bello Tasting Room are Riedels!



Categories: Food & Wine Pairing, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine Accessories, Wine Tales

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Really nice post about a complicated set of questions. I’m by no means a professional, nor an expert, but the cultural zeitgeist has not spared me its influence, and I have spent a fair bit of time looking into this topic. I have a couple of comments that I’d like to toss into the ring.

    First, it does seem difficult to maintain that different parts of the tongue contain dramatically different sets of taste receptors – based on the articles above as well as others, this just doesn’t seem to be supported by science. But I think that Christopher is correct when he points out “that there are innumerable ways and variations in which each of us experiences flavor and taste,” and this is true despite the fact that we are operating with a similar set of tongue tools. That said, this doesn’t let stemware makers off the hook – if indeed we all do experience wine differently, then it’s a little strange to claim that a certain shape of glass is the “best” or most “proper” for a certain kind of wine. Simply put, if there really is no way to predict what happens (on average) when wine enters the mouth, then how can a particular shape be more effective at delivering flavor, or enhancing experience?

    The truth probably lies some where in between – as it is want to do – and though we may all have slight variation in how we taste (example: acclimation to bitter compounds), we probably also share quite a bit in common (the distribution of taste buds on the tongue). The question remains, however: given these similarities and differences in how we taste, does stemware matter; or really – to be even more specific – can stemware deliver consistently superior tasting experiences?

    Before we can answer this question, I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we drink wine we do much more than taste it – we feel it as well. Not just the temperature (and here I refer to not only the actual temperature of the wine, but also how it changes through an individual sip), but things like tannins, coolness or hotness, weight, viscosity, and mouthfeel. And different parts of the mouth and tongue experience these characteristics differently. If this is true, then I think that Christopher’s claim about tongue positioning starts to make sense – the position of the tongue influences not just specific taste sensations, but feel sensations and feel sensation sequences. A glass that brings the tongue forward might deliver fruit first, before the tannins can cause a drying sensation towards the back of the mouth. Likewise, a glass that spills the wine into the mouth and causes it to swirl through the mouth, might result in a sensation of coolness, tightness, or dryness at the same time that it delivers its fruit notes. Stemware matters then, not because it directs the wine to the back left quadrant of your tongue (known as the Cab Sav region), but because it influences the sequence of events as wine comes into the mouth (put another way, how you feel the wine). If stemware can in fact predictably alter mouth shape when drinking, I think it stands to reason that stemware can impact taste experience. (I may threaten my credibility here, but for more info on taste and mouth sensations, check out Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taste). To be fair, though, it’s still up to the individual user to determine if one sequence, or sensation experience is better than the next (perhaps sippy cups deliver the goods just as well as Riedels).

    The other thing that I would like to point out is that the shape of the stemware probably influences the aromas that come off of the wine. A bigger bowl might hold more aromas longer, or allow the aromas to stratify in appealing ways. Without a doubt, smell is closely tied to taste, so any change in how things smell will also change how things taste. Here I suspect a tall, sexy Riedel might accentuate the nose of a good wine better than a sippy cup.

    These are just two of the ways that I can image that stemware does systematically influence wine. Does it make it better? Like most things wine related, I suspect we ought to leave it to individuals to decide what they like.

    And one more note: Mike Steinberger, the critic who turned me onto Ridge, has a fun article about just this very topic: http://www.slate.com/id/2069343/

    Thanks, and sorry for the lengthy post!

    • Thank you so much for such an in-depth response, I’m honored! And special kudos for bringing in the issue of bowl shape and aromatics, I think that’s an excellent observation! Though I will say, should someone get around to inventing a wine sippy-cup, I’m damn sure lining up to buy one …

      In all seriousness though (despite what I’m about to write), I actually think my peanut-butter-toast analogy is probably the best expression of what I was trying to say; how something enters the mouth undeniably (at least in my opinion!) affects how we experience its taste/flavor, and that being the case, I simply don’t think we can rule out the effect that glassware shape can accordingly have on our flavor/taste experience, given that different glassware “delivers” wine to our palates in different ways, shapes, and “orders” …

  2. No question that “different flavors/tastes are experienced differently, from person to person, palate to palate” but it is quite certainly not because of where on the tongue something lands. Taste receptors (many more than 4 or 5) are all over the tongue, mouth, and throat. The tongue map was debunked a long, long time ago (not partially–completely and utterly). The conclusion of the piece on wine glasses was not that the glass doesn’t matter, but that it matters because we are influenced by many factors; that is, perception occurs in the brain, not on a bitter receptor in a particular spot on the tongue (which used to be the essence of Riedel’s marketing). I’m sure we agree on almost everything about this topic, but because newspapers, magazines, and blogs continue to drag out the tongue map as the explanation for flavor perception, I can’t not respond when it pops up. Here’s another piece to consider:

    http://www.aromadictionary.com/articles/tonguemap_article.html

    Of course it omits some very important elements, including emotion. I am predisposed to like Ridge wines, for example, because of good memories of, in particular, a bottle of ’90 Geyserville.

    • Thanks again for your insights JR! In my defense, I never embraced the “tongue map”; in my original post, the phrase I used was “Assuming that different areas of our mouths/palates do indeed experience flavor/taste differently …” And with that said, I agree that we pretty much agree, but again in my defense, I did also mention the “many factors” side of the matter in my original post when I wrote “there are of course the somewhat more obtuse tertiary factors that one can group under the umbrella of “environmental factors”: time of day, time of year, alone vs. with company, solo vs. with food, etc.” … And in the end, cheers to the ’90 Geyserville!

      Seriously, thank you for all the feedback, and as you noted, I think we are definitely in agreement, and I think you’re right to call attention to the so-called “tongue map” issue; I just want to make clear I wasn’t endorsing that, and apologies if my generalizations made it seem otherwise; I think palate, and palate experience, are wildly complex matters, but that said, I still won’t rule out the effect of glassware!

      CW

  3. But there is no doubt that this: “different areas of our mouths/palates do indeed experience flavor/taste differently” is NOT the case. The science on that issue is clear and has been for quite some time. Here’s a piece that might be of interest:

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/shattered_myths

    And another, more recent, story on the science of taste:

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2008/07/scienceofflavor

    • First off, thank you very much for sending these articles across, and for taking the time to comment on my post. However, after having read both articles, I think I’ll have to respectively disagree with your conclusion; while I’ll certainly concede that my words you quoted above are both simplified, and also at least arguably harken to an earlier set of generalizations about flavor/taste, the information contained in the two articles you sent links for seem rather to support the notion that our receptors are complicated, that taste and flavor are complicated, and that there are innumerable ways and variations in which each of us experiences flavor and taste. The only myth that seems to me to have been even partially debunked is the idea that it’s as simple as a few categories (salt, sweet, etc.), and a few receptors (tongue, cheek, etc.). So again, while I would certainly concede that I’ve generalized and simplified, the concept remains the same; different flavors/tastes are experienced differently, from person to person, palate to palate, and from point of entry (the mouth and nose) onwards. Nothing in these articles seems to effectively demonstrate otherwise. That’s at least based on a first reading, I may change my mind again soon, but for the moment, I certainly don’t think the science is “clear” insofar as it’s supposedly rendered the idea of receptors and sensations “hokum.” Just my two cents for the moment … Mainly, I thank you for engaging in this topic, and PLEASE feel free to send more info, it’s thrilling to read it all …

      CW

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