The Magic of the Wine Glass
Authors: Olga Stepina, Vasily Prytkov
In the world of wine every trifle matters, and before the bottle makes it to the table, wine goes through a world of tribulations. Crafting good wine requires serious work on behalf of the winemaker, which is often an art worthy of poetic odes. But a bad cork, bad transportation or incorrect storage temperature in the store, restaurant or at home can damage all their efforts. And any compromise in the production process can affect the end result. But after all these conditions are met, the most important instrument has still yet to appear on stage: the glass, the vessel the winemaker uses to perform their symphony. And like a Fender guitar is better that a regular Ural, glasses also have their own quality standards and rules. When observing them, you allow the best of winemakers to complete their plan and express their perfection in a glass and in their feelings.
Before the wine glass adopted the shape familiar to us today, it came a long way from archaic vessels for ancient ceremonies, to the high-tech production of today. Of course, this is a story with heroes and masters, who addressed the needs and challenges of the wine culture of their time in the glassmaking process.
As with any high-precision manufacturing, which winemaking can without a doubt be described as, an historical figure appears at some point who is simply ahead of their time, sets a new standard for the industry as a whole and produces literally revolutionary change. The Austrian Claus Josef Riedel was such a figure in the history of the wine glass’ development.
What was the essence of these changes? Herr Riedel identified the primary problem of glasses of his time and the past in that they were too small to let the wine open up, show all its colors, hues and nuances. While vintage wine glasses use to be rather a luxury item and a canvas for jewelers and other artists, there have been significant changes in the culture of wine serving and presentation thanks to his improvements. His sharp nose, analytical mind and mindfulness of a true craftsman steered him to notice that the shape of a wine glass influences the taste, aroma and aftertaste of wine.
As the glass shape helped reveal all the nuances of the drink, it also brought about new demands to its quality. So Riedel’s improvements touched not only the glass’ aesthetics, as wine now played the key defining role.
Fully immersed in his studies, Riedel was able to sense the nature of different wines and create wine glasses for wines from different regions of France, Austria, Italy, and in addition, vessels for tequila, vermouth, liqueurs, grappa and other alcoholic beverages.
The famous Robert Parker wrote about this as well: «Riedel’s glasses are the most exquisite in both technological and hedonistic terms. The effect of these glasses on fine wines is unparalleled. I can hardly overstate the transformation of a wine poured into these glasses.»
The appearance of Riedel’s wine glasses on the market coincided with certain trends in modern culture, where focuses were shifted from decorative effects towards functionality, and strict laconic forms and high-quality materials became signs of modern luxury. Minimalistic thin-walled glasses with tall stems and no adornments are considered classic today, and are used at professional tastings at wine chateaux and served at the table of the rich and famous, while crystal wine glasses finish off their days in old-fashioned display cases.
A look back in history
Of course, finely made fragile glass vessels weren’t always part of the holiday table. Many centuries ago, they didn’t just raise cups and bowls, but also skins and horns. Researchers believe that the first vessel known to consume wine with was in fact the good old ladle. Nobel aesthetes and dandies of the Neolithic era made their fine ladles of wood, and later with metal of varying degrees of nobility. The tableware at feasts reflected social status and wealth, so often these ladles were made into fine works of art.
Nowadays, in some mountainous regions of the Caucasus, wine vessels made of bovine and ox horns can still be found in regular households. Similar vessels were also used by the Celts and Germanic tribes, with the horn sometimes decorated with precious metals and gems. And the ancient Greeks, with their high pottery culture (many researchers believe that ceramic qvevri, traditional Georgian vessels for aging wine, are a Greek invention) made special ceramic vessels, or rhythons, stylized as animal horns.
A wine serving cup had never been just a piece of tableware: it was a deeply symbolic vessel with a sacred meaning in many cultures. For some people, it was a bearing bowl, part of the fertility cult, and for others it was the symbol of the sacred vessel from Christ’s last supper. Anyway, most often these cups were metal (brass or copper), and often made of bone or glass, and decorated with ornaments, engravings or precious stones.
In the Middle Ages, people drank from wine cups typically made from precious metals (silver, gold) and rock crystal. It was also traditional to offer a cup of wine to participants who survived knight tournaments, which was traditionally drank to the bottom. Nowadays, this tradition is continued when awarding trophies to athletes, who often fill the coveted bowls with a sparkling wine they had waiting for that exact purpose.
The constituent parts of old cups are the bowl, body, stand and tray. The bowl base was associated with the earth, the stem/stand of the vessel represented its support, and the bowl was the container of vitality. The cup rim symbolized eternity or the circulation of everything in the universe, and the lid that often complemented the cup represented protection, or the patronage of fate or a higher power.
In Russia, cups came into fashion during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, and at first they were not sold to ordinary peasants (bans were a general feature of that time, for example, the New Testament was available only to a select few). Only rich and noble people could afford to drink from cups at that time.
In the 17th-18th centuries in our country, saying a toast, people would raise their «stoop.» A little stoop was 1/100 of a bucket, or 0.123 l. It was a rounded vessel with a spherical stem, which, according to Pushkin, was sometimes passed around the circle: «The cup of foamy wine changed hands.» The masters who created them tried to make each of them unique, working with patina, enamel and stamping. They were also often made of silver.
The glass’ shape
To fully appreciate the taste of a wine, every moment is crucial due to the increased volatility of phenols, or aromatic substances. By focusing not only on primary aromas (which may be similar in many grape varieties), but on the more individual, secondary range of scents, the correct glass shape can indeed gloss up a wine.
In addition, it should be taken into account that various glass shapes help direct wine to different receptors. If the correct shape is selected, we can enhance the most important notes in the bouquet and muffle any that may be distracting or discordant. We take a small sip from a wide glass, and to sip from a narrow one, we bend our head back lightly, and the wine falls onto another tongue zone.
The basic shapes of wine glasses are ball, tulip or lira. A classic red wine glass holds 200-300 ml, and is round in shape, while a classic white wine glass holds 180-260 ml, and is more elongated than its counterpart.
The «Burgundy» glass (also known as «Pinot Noir») has 150-820 ml of volume, and is used to serve red wine with moderate tannins (Pinot Noir, as well as Italian Barolo and Barbaresco). The task of the glass is to catch and reveal subtle, volatile and delectable aromas. A wide rim directs the wine closer to the front of the tongue.
A Red Bordeaux glass has volume of 500 ml and a long leg, used to serve dry red wines with high tannins (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Saperavi, Tempranillo, etc.). The tapered rim of the glass without curves directs the wine to the central part of the tongue. A White Bordeaux glass has a volume of 400 ml, a short stem, and is used to serve white wines.
A Champagne glass (flute glass) holds 200 ml, and has narrow straight walls. The drink is cooled before serving, and the glass is filled halfway. A glass for fine sparkling wines is between 220-230 ml, narrows towards the rim, has a pointed bottom of the bowl, is cooled before serving and filled to its halfway point.
The perfect wine glass is made of thin glass and has a high degree of transparency and purity. It is important to be able to see the drink in the glass to appreciate its color, density and shades when swirling, so glasses should never have any drawings or engravings.
To let a mature wine unfold most properly, some winemakers recommend glasses with a wide bowl bottom and edges pointed slightly outwards. In the event of young wines, on the contrary, it is important to focus their still young strength by narrowing the broad base of the glass upwards.
Wine connoisseurs know that even if your glass isn’t filled to the rim, it is still full. The correct serving method is when just one third of the glass is the drink, and two thirds are its flavor. At the same time, the glass does not expose a wine’s full flavor right away, but rather unfolds it in layers: the light floral aromas, like floral and fruit, go first, and then follow the herbal, mineral and earthy notes, and right above the wine’s surface one can discern the woody and alcoholic tones. Therefore, the role of the second nose is so crucial, as you aerate the wine a bit more by swirling it in the glass, allowing you to extract new flavors. The difference between the first and second noses is most clear if the wine wasn’t decanted prior to serving. Of course, the serving temperature is also extremely important.
Dry white wine should be served slightly chilled to 10-12° C, depending on the wine’s nature. For a summer siesta, Spaniards can cool such wines down to 8-10° C. On the contrary, dry red wines are best served at 16-18° C, preferably decanted. All the different varieties of dessert Muscats, Tokai and Sauterns are served at the same temperature, but fortified Porto, Madeira and Sherry can be served at room temperature. It is customary to serve sparkling wines cooled to a significant degree, but not less than 6-7° C.
If you do not use a decanter and do not decant wine in a glass (which some sommeliers recommend as well), it is best to pour young wine into shorter glasses. This gives it a chance to breathe and get air. The same technique is used by tea masters, if you want to saturate a tea with oxygen.
When serving mature red wines, the glass is taken by the stem and tilted, then the wine is poured carefully along the wall, with the bottle held horizontally. After the glass is filled with wine, you can slowly rotate it to reveal the drink and fully sense its fragrance.
According to proper wine etiquette, more wine is poured into a glass only when it’s empty. Also, never fill an empty glass if its owner has left the table.
There are also precise rules on how to hold the glass properly: at its stem, and in no other way. As for the professional approach to the topic, it involves assessing a large number of samples at the tasting: the color, aroma and taste of the drink must be assessed quickly and accurately. All of this requires a degree of mobility, which is why the glass is held not at the stem, but at its base. This also helps to better assess the color of the wine.
One should never hold a glass by its bowl, as the wine would overheat from your palm, which will damage its organoleptic properties. Not to mention fingerprints or lipstick on the glass! In a word, try not to stain it. One should also not hold the glass with just the thumb and index finger, and the same can be said about stretching your pinky finger out to the side.
Of course, a glass of even the finest quality could never turn a bad wine into a great one. Yet it is capable of revealing a successful wine in all its glory.
Russian poets on glasses and cups
Cheerful God of grapes
Lets us drink three bowls
At the evening feast.
First is to the graces,
Naked and bashful,
To the red-cheek health,
Third is to the friendship of many children.
The wise after the third bowl
Takes all wreaths off,
and prays to
the Blessing Morpheus.
Oh, boy! You should meet the Sun
With a triumph at the feast’s end!
So, bring carefully
And quickly from the cellars
In the cups long and heavy,
As was in the old times,
Of our cheerful great-grandfathers
Some merry wine.
Do not forget the golden edges
twine with roses and ivy!
It is fun in the old years
To drink the cup of youth,
Fun is, even for a moment,
To fill your chest with Bacchus,
Deceive your imagination
And look into the past.
Freedom, songs and wine —
this is joy given to us,
our Holy Trinity!
Love — but what is love? Without Bacchus
it’s too cold,
but too brave when he’s present.
But my friends, Bacchus
is our pleasure,
he never cheats:
Yesterday, today and tomorrow he is ours!
Love the clink of merry cups:
It will muffle the voice of sorrow!