The man behind some of the largest and most interestingly shaped wine glasses known to oenophiles, Georg Riedel, graced Miele Gallery with his presence and his Vinum XL glasses for a comparative tasting: 3 glasses + 3 wines + 1 Fiji water = New appreciation for glassware.
"Glasses are in charge of the delivery, that's it," says Riedel, explaining that the mode in which substances hit our palette impacts the tasting experience. "You feel the tickle at the front of the mouth, the acids on the sides, and the bitterness in the back."
Riedel approaches this red-wine tasting, developed in Dubai, with the precision of a scientific method worthy of a science fair tri-fold and a participation ribbon: Controlled variables, repeated testing, "random" sampling and a hypothesis... that he's aiming to prove true.
First up, water in each of the glasses: The fluted Pinot Noir, the narrow-mouthed Syrah, and the ginormous Cabernet Sauvignon that could hold an entire bottle-and-a-half of wine (although Riedel doesn't recommend it): "Each glass should hold no more than 3 to 5 ounces," he says.
Water, Riedel says, mimics the wine-tasting experience, but only engages two of the senses: Touch and taste. Water does not have smell nor flavor, according to him, as flavor is the combination between smell and taste. Real reason for the water test: Sobriety. (At least that's our guess...) So here's what we learned before the wine started to kick in.
The Pinot Noir glass delivers the liquid to the front of the tongue, or the sweet sensory spot, hitting with a bit of an oxygenated splash thanks to the fluted lip.
The Syrah glass concentrates the liquid delivery to the back of the palette, which detects bitterness and, in the case of wine, earthiness, herbs and spices.
The Cab Sav glass is Riedel's "troublemaker": Too big for anything but a big bad cab. It distributes the liquid evenly across the tongue, triggering all of the taste buds on the tongue. This is pleasing with the bottle of Fiji, but add some Pinot Noir to that glass, and we have issues.
Riedel explains that the bowl of the glass dictates its function, with its size, shape and rim diameter changing the mode of delivery that impacts the tasting experience; however, he admits there's no science to designing the perfect glass for a wine: It's all about trial and error.
Pouring Pinot Noir, that delicate, highly acidic, food-pairing wine, into all three glasses, Riedel explains how are sense of smell is about to be tricked.
"The only difference between rose petals versus chicken shit is the size of the molecules," Riedel says. Wine has a layered aroma, he explains, saying that the weight of the molecules dictates where scents lie within that layered structure and highlighting that the size of the bowl dictates which scents are at the forefront.
In the Pinot glass, the pinot noir is fruity and bright, but jump to the Cab Sav glass and suddenly, the wine smells yeasty and acidic and tastes the same way in the mouth. Riedel calls this exposing the weakness of the wine.
A shiraz in the Syrah glass has strong licorice notes with stone fruit and toasty vanilla and is dense and almost creamy on the palette, but in the monstrous Cab glass it smells ripe and raisin-y, almost faulty and tastes watered down.
"You'd never blame a wine you didn't like on the glass, would you?" he asks. Resounding nos. "But it could be."
"A wine glass is a tool and a weapon, because it can call forth different elements in the wine," Riedel says. "Drinking all wines from the same glass usually means that you 1) prefer one style of wine, because that glass is best suited to that style, and 2) decrease enjoyment, because you're not using glasses as tools to maximize your return on investment by letting the wine shine."
Finishing out the evening with Cab Sav, Riedel says its time to let his troublemaker glass do its job. It's the first wine that has an appeasing scent in the giant bowl of the glass, a spicy red: tobacco, currant, pepper, versus smelling of alcohol and the barrel it aged in in the Pinot glass. Sipping it, the Cab glass concentrates the tannins to the front, avoiding the harsh bitterness of the tannins finishing on your back palette.
Doubting the impact of the glass? You're in good company.
"When I first approached Mondavi, he said, 'In 50 years of winemaking I've never heard such nonsense,'" Riedel says. "But then, being a good winemaker and a good businessman, he realized that the glasses could enhance the experience of his wines."
So is it really worth it? How many wine-specific glasses do you need and how much should you spend on them?
We'd recommend test-running the glasses first, so you can experience the difference. Then considering what it is you'll likely use at home based on what you drink and how often you drink: No reason to have a cupboard full of wine glasses you never so much as touch.
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And Riedel recommends spending on each glass what you'd normally spend on a bottle of wine.
Just FYI: Miele sold 4-piece sets of the Riedel Vinum XL glasses for $75 the night of the tasting, and 5-piece sets for $100 - a special deal.
We left wanting a new set of wine glasses AND a new spiffy dishwasher, because as Riedel highlights, his glasses are dishwasher safe: PLUS PLUS PLUS! And nothing makes enjoying something easier than not having to dread the cleanup later.
Come back for class next and leave your questions for our wine gurus in the comments below, no hand-raising necessary.