by Ian Blackshaw
Wine is to be enjoyed with several of our senses and not just taste: smell and sight also play an important part in the process. So, it is very important to use glassware that accommodates these senses and shows off the wine to its greatest advantage, especially its colour, which, in any event, tells you quite a bit about the kind of wine it is and also its vintage. Plain, rather than coloured wine glasses, which were all the rage fifty years ago, should, therefore, be used. Such glasses also allow you to appreciate ‘the legs’ and ‘the tears’ on the inner wall – a sign of the quality of the wine – as you swirl the wine in the glass before tasting! All part of the wine experience.
Not only is it important to choose the right wine glass, known technically as ‘stemware’ and consisting of three parts, the bowl the stem and the foot, but also to know how to hold it. A chilled white wine should be held by the stem and never the bowl, because the heat from your hand(s) will affect the temperature of the wine and spoil the drinking experience. On the other hand, a red wine can benefit from a warm caressing hand – so also a good Cognac or Armagnac, which, according to the received wisdom, should be served in a warmed glass to bring out the flavour!
A little bit of history for you! Wine has, in fact, been served in glasses since ancient times.
For example, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (AD 23–79), the author, naturalist, natural philosopher and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, wrote about gold and silver drinking vessels being abandoned in favour of glass, which were – quite often – priced as highly as the precious metal versions. Also, Bonifacio Veronese’s sixteenth-century ‘Last Supper’ painting includes modern style wine glasses – with a stem and foot!
The oldest surviving European wine glasses with a stem and foot are fifteenth-century enameled goblets (technically, a glass holding more than four ounces of liquid).
Near the end of the sixteenth-century in Germany sophisticated engraved decoration was applied to covered wine glasses. The practice exists today and also is followed in Austria.
The earliest surviving English wine glasses are diamond-engraved glasses, produced near the end of the sixteenth-century by Verzelini. Plain straight stems gained popularity around 1740, with air twist stems being introduced about the same time. Ten years later, a twist incised on the exterior of the stem also became popular.
In France, quality crystal wine glasses were produced towards the end of the eighteenth-century.
Cordial glasses in the eighteenth-century had bowls of the same shapes that were typical for wine glasses, but they were much smaller, holding about one ounce of liquid.
Toast masters’ glasses were made with a thicker bottom and walls so that they would hold less; the custom being that a toast master had to drain every glass and still be able to remain standing until all the toasts were completed! A tall order. Incidentally, I once met a toast master at La Chartreuse du Val Saint Esprit in Gosnay (near Bethune), a convivial fellow, who, true to his ancient and noble profession, could imbibe like a trooper and still remain coherent!
Wine glasses during the nineteenth-century were often produced in sets — with a dozen each of port and sherry, burgundy and claret, champagne glasses and liqueur glasses. Oh to own such a set of antique glasses!
The play of light on the wine, the “legs” and “tears” on the inner wall when you swirl the wine and the way that aromas are captured within the wine glass — and presented to your nose while drinking — are things to consider when choosing wine glasses.
It is obvious – if you think about it – that a bigger glass is required for wine at dinner than would be needed for a sip of sherry before or after. Traditionally, wine glasses with larger, broader bowls are used for bold red wines with bigger bouquets, and narrower wine glasses are used to concentrate the more delicate aromas of lighter white wines.
Champagne is best served in a tall slender tulip glass. Visual enjoyment of the bubbles (the smaller the bubbles, incidentally, the better the Champagne!) that distinguish a sparkling wine from a still one is enhanced by the height. The once popular shorter version of the Champagne glass — whose design was reputedly based on a particular aspect of Marie Antoinette’s anatomy! — is too likely to spill and does not show off the rising bubbles to their best advantage or prolong the chill like a tall wine glass does.
If your budget, or available cabinet space, limits your stemware collection to a single size, a number of producers have made all-purpose designs, which are quite attractive and relatively inexpensive.
You may wish, for example, to choose a design similar to the California Wine Institute all-purpose wine glass. It is five and a half inches tall with a one and three-quarter inch stem. It has a clear, tulip-shaped bowl, with a capacity of eight fluid ounces!
Here is a complete set of Reidel stemware to illustrate the range:
Vinum Classic Burgundy/Pinot Noir; Vinum Classic Bordeaux/Cabernet/Merlot; Vinum Classic Chardonnay; Vinum Extreme Champagne; Sommelier Burgundy/Pinot Noir; and Sommelier Sauternes/Dessert Wine.
So now you know! And enjoy your wine – but in the right glass, which will make all the difference and enhance the bibulous experience!