One summer I decided to read a very large book detailing a few restaurateurs’ journey through every Italian wine region in order to better be in touch with my cultural heritage. Each section began with a snapshot story of life in the region, a pleasant aperitivo before diving into the meat of the chapter: grapes, ground, climate, history, all of those important things. In one section, while they wandered somewhere in southern Italy, the authors comment that the wine they were offered — occasionally it was from vines their hosts had out back — was often served in juice glasses. Simple, unpretentious, a piece of tableware with multiple purposes, just like wine. I abandoned my wine glasses for the duration of the season and drank wine, mostly Italian, from tiny glass cups instead.
So what’s the big deal with stemware? Is it really necessary to have a six or seven shapes of glasses sitting in your cabinet, waiting for the right wine to be opened so you can use your Syrah or Sangiovese-oriented glass, whenever the time arises? And the question asked most often by customers was: “Does it really matter anyway?”
While I’d be the first one to pour a glass of anything in a repurposed jam jar, I can say with some confidence that there are, in fact, purposes for all of the various shapes of stemware. Granted, just because a glass is labeled as a Merlot glass, it doesn’t mean it’s exclusively shaped for that variety and plenty of others will show just as beautifully. You never have to drink Chardonnay from a Burgundy glass or Cabernet from a Bordeaux glass, but there are tactile and sensory benefits to doing so.
First, the basics: a wine glass should be shaped like a tulip, that is to say, slightly wider at its base than it is at its rim. The reason for this is simple: aroma is a huge amount of wine’s pleasure. You have four variations on taste on your tongue: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But you have myriad of olfactory sensors waiting to be exploited. So smelling your wine, as ridiculous as it may seem to you, is actually just one more way to enjoy the heck out of it. When wine fills the bottom, wider portion of the tulip and you wash it up the sides of the glass with a gentle swirl, the wine evaporates and aroma is funneled up through the smaller opening directly into your face. It’s awesome.
Some glasses are specially designed for highly aromatic grapes, like Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, with much wider bowls than rims. This lets the wine to aerate over a large surface area, rapidly allowing the wine to blossom aromatically and waft all of that goodness into your waiting nostrils.
Wines that show best (that is, smell and taste their finest) at a certain temperature are often served in smaller glasses, which is why white wine glasses are generally smaller than the generic red glass. Sauvignon Blanc, for example, tastes better when it’s chilled which is why its glass is a petit tulip perched atop a long stem. Champagne or sparkling wine, often best very chilled and still bubbly, is often (not always) served in flutes that are small and narrow both to preserve temperature and to provide as little surface area for those bubbles to escape as possible. The old fashioned “coupe” style Champagne glasses that are wide and flat are charming to look at, but perhaps not the most ideal for bubble retention.
If you walk into my kitchen, the top shelf above the countertop is literally full of glasses, seven or eight shapes of various curve and height, a smattering of each that collect the light from the windows behind it and dust and cooking oils from any kitchen, leading to a periodic need to run batches of them through the dishwasher. Every night is a fun game of Which-Glass-Goes-With-Tonight’s-Wine?, a game I hated when my husband and I first started to dine together, namely because he’d say, “choose whatever glass you’d like!” And I’d pick a glass, then he’d come back into the room and while my back was turned change the glass for the one he’d really prefer. It was nerve-wracking, a test. Shouldn’t I know this?
But you really can’t know it till you try it. One day, while eating a spectacularly scrambled egg on toast with a bottle of Austrian Grüner Veltliner, we put the sleek, minerally, high-acid white wine into two different glasses: a Reisling glass, which is has an elongated, thin tulip-like shape, and a Montrachet glass, which looks almost like a tiny fishbowl atop a long stem. The Riesling glass, because it’s narrow and streamlined, made the Grüner feel pointed, sharp, emphasized the direction of the acid and allowed the lingering finish to perfume the inside of the mouth. The wider Montrachet glass made the wine seam broader, richer, emphasized plump fruit and downplayed the acid. The glass choice actually made the wine taste different.
I’m not that fancy. I prefer to eat things on crackers or chips, I like iced tea in my grandmother’s green tumbler with a straw, and I wear the same sweater almost every day. But I will say that while I don’t always think about it so carefully, experimenting with glassware and wine is a fun exercise. Don’t have seven different wine glasses? Try a plastic cup, a rocks glass, a shot glass, anything you have lying around. The changes, if you pay attention to smell and taste together, can be pretty surprising. And if you happen find those beautifully etched old-school Champagne coupes at a yard sale for two dollars, by all means: sit at home on a Tuesday night with a bottle of Vinho Verde and congratulate yourself on how damn fancy you really are.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.