Wine glasses. It seems like a fairly straightforward topic, no? But did you know there are glasses specially designed to bring out the best in your wine? Even the most casual wine drinker is likely aware that Champagne is typically drunk from tall flutes. But do you really need separate glasses for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon? Or Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay?
“Need” is a very subjective term. Of course no one needs separate wine glasses for different varietals. But if you spend a lot of time and money on your wine collection, or even if you just want to get a fuller appreciation for your vino, specialty glasses can make a difference.
You’ve probably heard of Riedel—they started this whole “different glasses for different wines” craze years ago. I personally prefer Schott Zwiesel stemware. They infuse their glass with titanium for strength. It makes the glasses much less likely to chip or break. (Granted, if you drop one on the floor, it will break. It’s still glass, after all.)
You’ll notice that I just referred to wine glasses as “stemware.” This was purposeful. Generally speaking, I dislike stemless wine glasses. Sure, they fit in the dishwasher, but they lack the elegance of a stemmed glass. Not to mention the fact that holding a stemless glass in your hand, say, at a cocktail party, will warm your wine more quickly than holding a stemmed glass—if you’re holding the stemmed glass correctly, that is: by the stem or foot, not by the bowl.
Stemless glasses made from plastic can be quite useful for camping or picnics. And if you aren’t continuously holding your wine glass, then you can avoid the wine-warming problem. So they have their place; I personally do not like them though.
As I mentioned already, Champagne is widely recognized as a wine that deserves a special glass. Typically, tall flutes with straight sides are used. However, the very best shape for drinking Champagne (or other sparkling wine) is a tulip glass. It’s still tall, but the sides are slightly convex, as opposed to straight.
The reason Champagne is served in tall glasses is that it allows the tiny bubbles to float upward in a column, instead of dispersing, which causes flat Champagne. This is why the coupe (aka, the saucer) is the absolute worst possible glass for Champagne. It’s wide body allows rapid dispersal of the bubbles, rendering the sparkling wine definitively unsparkling. The only circumstance under which a coupe is acceptable is if you are having a cocktail that contains Champagne. In that case, dispersal of the bubbles is less of a concern, because you’ve already diluted and flattened the Champagne to some extent with the addition of other ingredients.
The reason a tulip shape is preferred over a straight flute is that the bulbous portion gives the wine’s bouquet (the aroma) an opportunity to reach your nose, and the bowl has a little more space for air to mix with the Champagne, allowing the aromas to develop. This is especially important when drinking vintage Champagne that may have been cellaring for several (or many) years.
When it comes to red wine, the reason to have varietal-specific glasses has to do with enhancing taste. For the moment, let’s just compare Bordeaux wines to Burgundy wines. Bordeaux is always a blend but is predominantly either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Red Burgundy is always Pinot Noir. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are much more robust and tannic than Pinot Noir, but generally with less acidity than Pinot.
A Bordeaux wine glass is tall with a slightly wide bowl and narrows toward the rim. This shape puts the wine in the center of your tongue as you sip it, which allows the fruit, tannins, and acidity to meld together and balance each other out.
A Burgundy glass, on the other hand, is shorter with a very wide bowl and a wide mouth. This directs the wine more toward the tip of your tongue, which accentuates the fruit and makes the acidity less overpowering.
Chances are that you can categorize most red wines into either the Bordeaux glass camp or the Burgundy glass camp. Glass manufacturers make glasses for even more specific varietals: Shiraz, Chianti, Zinfandel, etc. But they’re all variations on a theme, and unless you primarily drink one of those varietals, you can easily get away with having one set of glasses for the tannic, moderately acidic wines and one set for the lower tannin/higher acidity group. One exception would be Port. Because Port is fortified, it has a higher percentage alcohol than regular wine; therefore, you drink it in small portions and, consequently, need a much smaller glass.
White wines can also generally be classified into two groups: full-bodied, rich whites with moderate acidity like Chardonnay versus crisp, zesty whites with high acidity like Sauvignon Blanc. Once again, a Bordeaux–Burgundy dichotomy can be useful.
Chardonnay is the exclusive white grape of Burgundy, whereas Sauvignon Blanc is one of several commonly grown grapes in Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc is the more acidic wine, but here you want to accentuate the acidity, which is what makes these wines sing. So you use a glass with a narrower mouth to direct the wine to the center of your tongue. A Sauvignon Blanc glass is similar to a Bordeaux glass, but on a smaller scale. In addition to Sauvignon Blanc, you can use this glass for Sémillon, Pinot Grigio/Gris, Albariño, Vinho Verde, Grüner Veltliner, and any white Bordeaux.
A Chardonnay glass, confusingly, can be a scaled-down Pinot Noir glass or a scaled-down red Bordeaux glass. This is primarily due to the dramatic difference between Chardonnay grown in Burgundy and Chardonnay grown elsewhere. A white Burgundy, especially if it’s from the Chablis region of Burgundy, is likely to have more of a flinty, mineral-y taste (higher acidity). Chardonnay grown in California, for example, is often aged in oak, which imparts a richer, silkier, more buttery taste. (It also isn’t grown in limestone-rich soil, like that found in Chablis.) To balance the acidity in white Burgundy, a wider glass (more like a Pinot Noir glass) is desirable. With less-acidic Chardonnay, a Bordeaux-style glass is appropriate. You can also use the latter type of glass for Gewürtztraminer, Riesling, Viognier, and other white Rhone varietals.
Even if you don’t drink enough wine to warrant varietal-specific glasses (or don’t have the space, or don’t want to spend the money, or think the whole idea is ridiculous!), I do recommend having wine glasses that have a significant amount of bowl space. Not because I think you should pull a Jules Cobb from Cougar Town and pour an entire bottle of wine into one glass, but because having a little room for the wine to breathe and being able to give it a little swirl are important. A wine’s aromas contribute to its taste, and swirling opens up the aromas and gets them to your nose. Having a little extra real estate in your glass will enhance your appreciation of your wine.
On that note, when you pour a glass of wine, fill it about one-third to two-thirds full (depending on just how large it is). Even if you’re not swirling your wine to evaluate the bouquet and the legs, it’s good to give the wine space. In my family, a wine glass filled to the top is known as a “Jessie glass,” after my sister-in-law, who probably only over-filled a wine glass once but is now branded for life. We’re a tough crowd!