Proper stemware is one of the most important tools used in evaluating wine. It enhances not only the wine-tasting experience as a whole, but one's ability to focus and get the most from what lies within the glass.
Conversely, improper stemware can be a real detriment. Not long ago I attended a wedding where the champagne was served in the old-fashioned, flat-bottomed glasses that were all the rage prior to the 1980s. The etched glasses were family treasures that had been used in many previous events. But once the lovely champagne hit the bottom of the glass, the bubbles dissipated across the surface, and it became flat within three minutes.
The following are some general rules on proper stemware:
- Flutes for sparkling wine. These chimney-shaped glasses contain the bubbles, allowing the aromas to rise up and create a marvelous bouquet. And the elegance of their shape brightens any party. Over Valentine's Day we attended a party where salmon-colored sparkling wines were served in flutes, and the effect was quite wonderful. Just a note: It is not necessary to swirl sparkling wine. In fact, swirling the glass only dissipates the bubbles more quickly.
- Deep bowls for red wine. Red wine glasses should be deep and fairly round at the bottom and narrow toward the top, so that swirling the wine in the bowl allows the nose to concentrate on the bouquet through the narrow opening. This concentration allows us to focus not only on the fruit of the grape but on every other aspect of the wine, including oak and subtle nuances. The important thing about red wine in good stemware is to never fill the glass more than about a quarter full. Allow ample space for swirling the wine, as this brings up the flavor sensations very quickly. At home and in the shop, I use a glass that would hold 12 ounces if filled to the top.
It is not necessary to purchase large glasses for wine, as they are a waste of money and difficult to clean. I have seen quite large glasses with a capacity for over 20 ounces at various private tastings, and I think this is quite excessive.
Lesser bowls for white wines. There are many fine white wine glasses on the market today. I believe they should be about two-thirds the size of red wine glasses at the table, though I know some people will take issue with this and prefer to use the same glass for either white or red. White wine glasses should be smaller not only for appearance's sake next to its red cousins but also for pragmatic reasons. Because white wines are served cool to cold, and therefore more restricted in the nose, swirling cold wine will not bring out as much as it would in red wine. Once the white wine has hit the warmth of the palate, evaluation will become easier.
There are many more styles and shapes for other wines such as port and sherry, but let's focus now on how to use good stemware as a tool for evaluation.
In red wine, I like to cover the top of the glass with my palm and swirl the wine for about 10 seconds. This flavor concentration achieved by retaining the bouquet is important when first evaluating red wine. Try this little technique with any red wine, and I think you will be surprised by how much more intense the bouquet becomes.
There are also little plastic "Vinaire" devices — little funnels with capillary tubes in them — that aerate the wine when it's poured through them over a glass. I have mixed feelings about these little devices, as I find they flatten the fruit and bouquet in older wines. In any event, I think swirling red wine does the trick just fine.
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.