The email arrived one dreary, rainy March day – come to a Riedel tasting at Archery Summit Winery. What’s a Riedel tasting? Don’t they make wine glasses? Are we supposed to eat the wine glass and then slug down some wine afterwards? Intrigued and looking for anything that would brighten my day I kept reading. Maximilian Riedel, designer of the Riedel “O” series crystal wine glasses, was giving a seminar on the differences that a wine glass makes to the taste of wine. This I’ve got to see. See? No, this I’ve got to taste. Of courese, everybody knows that the glass doesn’t make any difference to the taste of a wine.
Deciding it was time to discover something new, I RSVP’d and also signed up my 27 year old cognitive psychologist daughter. I figured that I might succumb to mass hypnosis about the difference that a leaded crystal glass makes versus a regular wine glass, but I knew that Elizabeth was too much of a scientist to let that happen to her. Her young palette is so different from mine that I figured that would also be a good test.
After a pleasant reception in the Archery Summit barrel aging caves sipping on their 2002 Red Hills Estate Pinot Noir, one hundred of us “Bad to the Beaune” Wine Club members moved into the fermentation room where long rows of tables were laid out. Each place setting had five wine glasses plus water glasses. Maximilian Riedel started the seminar with a history of the 11 generations of Riedel glass makers and how he got interested in designing wine glasses. As he switched from history to glass tasting, he reminded us that 70% of the taste of a wine actually comes from our sense of smell, the aroma, the nose of the wine, the bouquet (recent research suggests that 90% of our taste is actually smell). He then went into the basics of a good wine glass – it must be lead crystal; it must be completely clear; it must have the appropriate volume to allow the bouquet to collect but not overwhelm; and it must allow for “three fingers” of wine with plenty of room for the bouquet.
“OK. OK. Come on get on with it,” I thought. I’ve got these four great wines in front of me, let’s get on with the tasting. As if he heard my thoughts, Riedel said “Let’s cut from the theory and get to the experience.” Our wines were laid out on a placemat with an empty “Joker” glass on the left at the start of a semi-circle. To the right of the Joker class were the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon glasses. Each wine came in its own differently shaped Riedel Vinum Extreme wine glass.
“We’re going to start with the Sauvignon Blanc in front of you,” Riedel directed. “Go ahead and pick up the glass and give it a good swirl. We want to really aerate the wine and get a good smell going. Now, stick your nose into the glass and drink deeply of the bouquet. Try that again two or three times. OK, go ahead and taste the wine. Wonderful, right?”
“On your left you have what we call a Joker glass. It is a glass that you will find in 95% of the restaurants that you go to and is probably the kind of glass you drink from at home. It is used for both red and white wines. Now I want you to pour your Sauvignon Blanc into the Joker glass and go through the same routine. Swirl, smell and then taste.”
Elizabeth and I nearly banged into each other as we turned to simultaneously exclaim –“There’s no taste to this wine! What happened to that wonderful tasting wine we just had? It’s a trick.” We quickly poured the wine back into the Riedel glass and Voila!, there was our great tasting wine again. I couldn’t believe it. So back and forth I poured the wine between the Riedel glass and the Joker glass. Riedel glass – tasty. Joker glass – barely tasteable, and a not very good wine. What was going on here?
Riedel asked rhetorically “So what’s going on here? Let’s run another experiment. Notice that the Joker glass has a rolled lip and the Riedel glasses have a cut, almost sharp edge. Try pouring some liquid from each glass. Note that with the Joker glass in order to pour the liquid you have to jerk the glass to get the liquid over the edge. With the Riedel glass the liquid pours smoothly to exactly where you want it to go. What this means is that with the Joker glass you are always “tossing” the wine into the back of your palette, to the back of your mouth. In front of you is a piece of paper that shows which part of the tongue and palette are sensitive to which tastes. We taste sweet things on one part of the tongue, bitter things on another etc. Riedel glasses are designed through the smooth edge and the shape of the opening to pour the wine onto the appropriate part of the palette that is best affected by the wine varietal (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon) that you are tasting.
“So let’s try the next experiment. Taste the Chardonnay in its Riedel glass – remember to swirl, smell, swirl, smell, swirl and taste. Then pour the Chardonnay into the Joker glass. Big difference, right? Now pour the Chardonnay into the Sauvignon Blanc Riedel glass. It certainly tastes better than the Joker glass, but not as good as the Riedel Chardonnay glass, right?” One hundred heads bob in unison. We were all clearly noticing the difference along with savoring the wonderful Chardonnay.
“So it is not just the quality of the crystal glass versus normal glass, it is also the shape,” Maximilian explained (having this much wine and fun we were now on a first name basis). “The shape matters. One of the things that differs between varietals is the alcohol content. So the more alcohol in the wine, the more we have to dissipate the alcohol smell. Many of your probably got some tears in your eyes when taking a good whiff of the Chardonnay in the Sauvignon Blanc glass. That’s the alcohol overpowering the unique fragrances of the Chardonnay. Notice that the Riedel Chardonnay glass opening is much larger than the Sauvignon Blanc and there is a much larger bowl. The larger opening allows the alcohol smell to escape and the larger bowl collects the subtler fragrances. Now reverse, put the Sauvignon Blanc in the Chardonnay glass. Notice that the Sauvignon Blanc aromas are dissipated. It doesn’t taste the same as in its own glass.”
Elizabeth was so excited, “this glass tasting is what I would dearly love to use in the psychology Perception class that I teach at the University of Oregon. It’s so hard to get across so clearly the differences in the world that affect our senses and perceptions.” Then she muttered, “Damn. I can’t do this with the undergraduate students because they are underage or might have religious restrictions. Not to mention how could I afford to get 150 sets of glasses and the appropriate wines.” We both laughed.
We continued with our education as we tried each of the four wines in each of the five glasses. Each variety of wine tasted far better in the glass designed specifically for it. As I was drinking the Archery Summit 2002 Arcus Estate Pinot Noir in the Riedel glass, I had one of those wonderful “Ah hah” moments. It seems every time I taste a fine wine in a tasting room and love the taste, I get home and it never tastes as good. It’s the glass. Oh, my bank account is in trouble now. The greatest gift of the evening was taking the Riedel Vinum Extreme glasses home. In the intervening months, I’ve run the “glass tasting” experience with over three hundred friends with ages ranging from 21 to 60 and interest in wine from the “I don’t care” to the serious wine lover. In every case, the glass tasters have noticed the big difference that an appropriately designed glass can make.
When we have friends over to the house to do a wine and glass tasting we usually try the wines in three types of Riedel Glasses – Vinum Extreme, the Sommeier Series, and the O series. These three series represent a range of prices and illustrate large differences in smell and tastes with the wines. My favorite is the Sommelier series. The photo on the left shows our dining room table set for a tasting with eight people with four of our favorite northwest wines.