I had the pleasure of attending the International Festival of Wine and Food at the Banff Springs Hotel over the weekend. This event combines gourmet meals with tastings of some of the world’s best wines.
But one tasting was very different: instead of tasting wine, those attending tasted glasses. They witnessed a demonstration by Georg Riedel of how using wine glasses specifically designed for different types of wine can make those wines taste and smell their best.
Riedel glasses are based on two scientific principles. The first is that what we call flavour is really a combination of taste and smell. When wine enters the mouth, it activates taste buds on the tongue and palate, producing sensations of sweet, salty, sour or bitter. At the same time, molecules evaporating from the surface of the wine travel through the oral and nasal cavities to the olfactory receptors. Even though smell is playing as big a role as taste, in our minds we tend to localize the flavour of the wine in the mouth.
The second is the tongue map. First developed in 1901 and refined since, the tongue map reveals that different areas of the tongue are more sensitive to certain tastes than others. The tip of the tongue is most sensitive to sweetness, the sides to salt, the top of the tongue closest to the edges to acidity, and the back to bitterness.
What George Riedel’s father Claus realized in the 1950s, when he took the two-centuries-old family glassmaking business in a new direction, was that wine glasses could be shaped to emphasize certain elements of smell and the taste over others, influencing the way we experience the flavour of the wine.
The shape and volume of the glass, the diameter of the rim and its finish all influence your impressions of a wine.
Shape and the diameter of the rim influence the way we drink. Wide-open shapes require us to sip by lowering our heads, while a narrow opening forces us to tilt our heads backward. Riedel glasses use this to deliver a specific wine onto the portion of the tongue that makes that wine taste the best.
Volume affects a wine’s smell, and hence its flavour. The familiar smallish, bowl-shaped wine glass typically filled almost to the brim has no room for the many different aromas coming from the wine to gather. Riedel glasses, on the other hand, are typically very large and are never filled, so that there is room in the glass for layers of aroma to form as various molecules escape the surface of the wine.
The lightest flower and fruit aromas rise to the rim, the middle part of the glass contains green vegetal scents and earthy, mineral components, and the heaviest aromas, typically wood and alcohol, remain at the bottom of the glass. The large Riedel glasses allow experienced tasters to detect all of these elements by inhaling gently for about 10 seconds.
Even the finish of the rim affects the wine-tasting experience. A cut, polished rim allows the wine to flow smoothly onto the tongue; a rolled rim inhibits the smooth flow of wine, which tends to accentuate acidity and harshness, because the wine flows more around the tongue’s edges instead of to its center.
Does it work?
It does. Although I couldn’t attend the Riedel tasting myself (I was babysitting) an extremely reliable source (my wife) reports that all Riedel glasses were superior to the run-of-the-mill wine glass (called the “joker” by Riedel) and Riedel glasses designed for a specific type of wine made those wines taste better than Riedel glasses designed for other types of wine.
For example, sauvignon blanc has high acidity. But a Riedel sauvignon blanc glass minimizes that acidity, bringing out the fruit and mineral flavors. The same wine in the “joker” glass loses much of its aroma and seems simple and less interesting. Served in a Riedel chardonnay glass, it becomes to acidic, because the Riedel chardonnay glass, with a broad circumference and wide opening, is designed to emphasize acidity, something chardonnays typically lack, to make them livelier. Serving chardonnay in a sauvignon blanc, on the other hand, makes the chardonnay taste bitter, because the narrow, deeper sauvignon blanc glass is designed to deliver wine to the back of the palate, where the bitterness receptors are located.
So who knows? Maybe your dislike of certain wines has nothing to do with the quality of the wine; maybe you’ve been drinking good wines from bad glasses.