Can the shape of the glass really affect how you taste an alcoholic beverage, whether it is wine, beer or something stronger? THIS Quarterly investigates…
I am seated at the round dining table in the home of Victor Ulrich, Vice President of Riedel Asia-Pacific at 9.30am on a Wednesday morning. He has a flight to Frankfurt at 1pm but managed to squeeze in this interview.
On the table is a row of contemporary looking wine glasses of different shapes and heights. We are here to talk about a 2015 study by Japanese researchers. They developed a special camera that can photograph ethanol vapours as alcohol evaporates from a glass. In the study, the wine glass is the shape that delivers the most intense aroma, in a consistent ring around the glass rim.
Does this study prove what wine glass makers like Riedel have been saying for years, that the shape of a wine glass directly affects the taste of the wine?
Some people are sceptics, dismissing the idea as a marketing gimmick. I am neither a sceptic nor a proponent, and I am prepared to listen and, hopefully, experience to form my own conclusion.
What stands out among the glasses on the table is one that looks decidedly old fashioned. The bowl is smaller and decorated with etchings. Its rim is wider than the bottom of the bowl, rather than the narrower rims of the contemporary-looking glasses. The crystal looks sturdy and thick. When I lift the glass, it’s heavy.
Says Ulrich, “Before the 1950s, wine glasses were wide-mouthed and made of thicker glass or crystal and had decorations on them. The problem was they were small, so people would pour the wine right to the top, and you could not swirl.” Wine glasses now, he explains, are more egg-shaped. “They are made of thinner glass or crystal, have bigger bowls, and do not have decorations on them because of the delicate, thinner glass.”
How do these factors affect the taste and experience of the wine? Enormously, it seems.
Different shapes for different grapes
Riedel’s wine glasses are grape-specific, which means each glass is designed for drinking wine made from a specific type of grape or family of grapes. “Glasses are like loudspeakers,” he says. “How much enjoyment you get from the music you enjoy will depend on the loudspeaker. We see glasses as a tool to maximise the pleasure of drinking wine.” It’s a good analogy. Any audiophile would cringe at a beloved tune being butchered by an inferior sound system.
But is the analogy accurate?
Ulrich selects two red wine glasses — for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon respectively. Acidity, sweetness, body, fruit and tannins are the five elements of wine, he explains. Pinot Noir is a wine with high acidity, and the reason why many do not like Pinot Noir. The Riedel Pinot Noir glass has a smaller rim than the Cabernet Sauvignon glass next to it.
“Different-sized rims bring the wine to different places on your palate. The Pinot Noir glass brings the wine to the tip of the tongue. The tip of the tongue is more sensitive to sweetness, which will balance the wine’s acidity.”
He picks out another glass, one for Shiraz. It has a narrow rim for the wine to hit the sides of the tongue. “The sides of the tongue are more sensitive to saltiness and minerality. Shiraz is more spicy and syrupy, with hints of cassis and pepper. The traditional open-mouthed wine glass shape brings out more of the yeast in the wine.”
Does Glass Shape Affect Other Alcohols?
Victor Ulrich, Vice President of Riedel Asia- Pacific, weighs in.
“Drinking champagne from a flute is only tradition. Champagne is a wine and needs to be drunk from a white wine glass so that the aromas can be released.”
“The traditional cognac glass has a short stem and a round, balloonshaped bowl. The balloon shape of the bowl focuses only on the alcohol and you get very little of the aromas. Spirits are 40–45% alcohol. A large balloon bowl has too large a surface area for evaporation of the alcohol, which will collect at the top of the glass. You will not smell the fine aromas, only the alcohol. The Riedel cognac glass has a tulip shaped bowl to focus on the fine aromas and caramels.”
“The traditional shape of the pint glass is straight-sided. For a beer like India pale ale, with a high level of intentional bitterness from the hops, a regular pint glass will create a feeling of dryness in the mouth. A curved glass with a narrower rim, made for craft beer, like those from Spiegelau, uses the same principle of directing the beer to hit specific areas of the palate to balance the bitterness.”
Different shapes for different spirits
Does the shape of the glass affect the experience of spirits and other alcoholic drinks as well? Certainly, says Ulrich, before heading to the liquor cabinet from which he retrieves an opened bottle of rum. “We will try with this.” He sets out two glasses, one with a large, round balloon bowl and short stem synonymous with cognac, and another delicate glass with a small, tulip-shaped bowl.
He picks up the large glass. “You get the picture of someone holding a cigar and swirling this balloon shaped glass. But it is the worst glass for cognac ever! The balloon bowl focuses only on the alcohol and you get very little of the aromas.” He sets it down. “The Riedel cognac glass has a tulip-shaped bowl to focus on the fine aromas and caramels of the cognac.”
He pours rum into both glasses and invites me to inhale. I try the large glass first, dipping my nose into the centre of the balloon bowl. I want to jerk my head back immediately. The smell of alcohol is overpowering. It’s like inhaling deeply from a bottle of nail polish remover. Then I try the small tulip glass – it’s as if I’m smelling a different liquor altogether! There is a wonderful sweetness, a delicious aroma of cooked sugar. I could sit here inhaling from this glass all day.
I’m sold. And this is only rum. I’m never drinking wine from standard glasses again.
What about the Japanese study, I ask. Does it prove what glass makers like Riedel have been saying about glass shape affecting wine taste? “It is helping us, because it relates to the alcohol and the number of molecules [of ethanol] but it does not help us to justify that this is the shape for Shiraz, that this shape for this wine is better than the other. The only way is for us to try the wine in the glass. The machine can tell you the percentage of alcohol, the percentage of carbon dioxide, but the machine cannot tell you if the wine tastes good.”