Wine Stemware: Beauty or the Beast?
I have to admit that I love fine crystal wine stemware. Those delicately shaped of the bowls, sculpted to perfection with the handsof highly skilled experts, gently balanced on an elegant stem and base, is just a beauty to behold; a jewel, set delicately upon a pedestal displaying all its glory at the finest hour. Then the ritual commences.
A small sample is transferred into the glass bowl. You admire its tint and shades, your eyes straining to unravel its mysteries. Then you gently swirl the wine, observing its behavior as it coats the inner surface with grace and texture. Does it have “legs” or is it “thin?” The generous opening of the bowl invites you to sense the waves and layers of aromas as they drift aloft like clouds. And then comes the moment of truth, that critical test of flavors and aromas. You take a sip and marvel at the wine’s notes, scents and texture. Seamlessly, you real off a description of the wine; aromas and flavors of deep currant and blackberry, hints of licorice and tar supported by a backbone of firm tannins and a long finish.
Of course, this sensory experience was accentuated if not brought to its climax by the shape and grace of the stemware….or was it? You see, beneath this impassioned, nearly religious belief by some that the shape of the hand crafted stemware influences the tasting ritual, others claim that they can enjoy the experience equally from everyday wine glasses, manufactured by machine, and at a fraction of the cost. So where does the truth lie? The answer may well be, as is so often with such controversy, somewhere in the middle.
To place some historical perspective, let’s go back to 1997 where in New York City over 1000 enthusiastic wine consumers gathered at a Marriott Hotel in Time Square for an annual wine tasting event. There, the president of a well renown crystal stemware company guided the tasters through a maze of wines using alternatively shaped glasses for each wine. By the time he was finished with his impassioned sermon, he had converted much of this “wine flock” to agreeing that the shape of the wine bowl did, indeed, influence the quality of the aromas and flavors. A given shape of the wine bowl, did indeed, improve the aromas and flavors of any given wine. The same wine, placed in a “non-optimal” shaped bowl, did not taste as expressive, most agreed. Thus, was unleashed, the prelude to the modern day “beast” that only the properly contoured wine glass can release the full expression of aromas and flavors from a given wine.
Let’s fast forward a bit to an August 2004 article written in Gourmet Magazine by Daniel Zwerding entitled Shattered Myths. The first half of the article works through a wine tasting for 13 enthusiasts conducted by a representative of a well known wine crystal producer. The account is quite convincing as the rep shares persuasive suggestions and opinions about the aromas and flavors of the wine placed in alternatively shaped glasses. The most intriguing suggestion is that each wine glass is crafted in such a manner, that it can showcase the wine’s aromas and “steer” its flavors to the precise taste buds displayed on a “tongue map”. Thus, if a wine has an abundance of sweet notes, the proper glass with just the correct shape, would presumably steer the wine toward the location of those taste buds that sense sweetness……interesting concept and in theory, sounds logical. By the same token, according to the rep, placing the wine in the wrong glass will result in odd or off aromas and flavors. The seminar must have been quite convincing as the group purchased over $1000 of stemware. The problem was, and I believe still is, there was no convincing scientific proof of these claims.
The article goes on to cite studies by European and U.S. researchers that the claims are inaccurate and in fact, there really is no “tongue map.” While this concept was developed earlier in the 20th century, it is now accepted that your tongue can sense sweet, bitter, sour or salty on any of its taste buds, regardless of location. One taste research scientist stated that “the brain doesn’t care where the taste is coming from in your mouth.” In fact, there still has not emerged any landmark study that proves that wine served in a fine piece of crystal wine stemware smells or tastes much different from the analogous discount store version. This, however, has not stopped the finest stemware producers from claiming that shape impacts the harmony and balance of the aromas and flavors of wine.
The Riedel company, famed craftsmen of fine crystal stemware since the 1700’s, firmly believes that the correct size and shape ultimately translates into allowing wine to best express its aromatic and flavor profile. The seminars tend to sway even the most skeptical observer, the hands on tastings very convincing. Despite this, Georg Riedel (now deceased and father of current owner Max), decided to take this issue to the scientists, requesting validation of his belief that shape did, indeed, influence, the wine’s profile.
In the late 1990’s Riedel conducted a study for scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a very prestigious sensory center for smell and taste. This was the first time that scientists had the opportunity to test the Riedel glasses under strict and rigorous conditions. Scientists were to wear blackened glasses and their heads fixed by a device so that each glass with its wine would be the same distance from the tester’s nostrils. The testers were never allowed to touch the glass itself. The room was exceptionally well ventilated with fresh air so that any extraneous odors, apart from those emitted by the wine glasses themselves, were eliminated.
At test time, each glass was automatically swirled by a machine and then placed 60mm from the subject’s nose. Each scientist was to rate the aromas on a sliding scale. When the study was complete, the scientists were surprised to note that the subjects could not differentiate between one glass of a given wine and another containing the same wine. Additionally, the subjects had no preferences in likes or dislikes of the aromas from one glass to the next. Disappointed and skeptical with these results and believing that the testing audience was too small, Georg elected to request a much larger group, one of over 200 subjects. Each subject was tested for state of physical health as well as psychological fitness.
At the end of this experiment, the subjects could not detect any differences in flavors from one shaped glass to another. It seemed to not make any difference whether the glass was round or angulated. The test subjects could not detect differences in sweetness, bitterness or saltiness from the same wine placed in different glasses. They could detect very small differences in the level of sourness. The wine was described as subjectively more “pleasant” in the traditionally shaped wine glasses than alternative shapes such as square or tulip.
When the scientists shared the results with Georg, his response was quite revealing. He discounted the science of the “tongue flavor map” as “scientifically unsound,” claiming that he used the concept only to assist in describing his products and how they worked. He went on to claim that if you were to ask consumers who used his stemware and participated in his seminars if the stemware shapes made a difference, they would shout a resounding yes!
Jump, if you will to 2002, when a London based publication, claimed that a U.S. study by a renown scientist at the University of Tennessee found that the shape of a wine glass influences the presentation of chemicals in wine and thus influences the taste of wine. Decanter magazine, the well respected London based wine magazine, declared that the right glass did make a difference. Several additional publications and radio shows followed suit with supportive claims. The debate seemed to be resolved and the “beast” slayed. The shape made the difference. But that’s where the celebration stopped.
When the lead researcher, Kari Russell, was interviewed, it was revealed that she was a college senior who rounded up a few dozen subjects for testing. From the article reports, she was actually amused that the media had made so much of the “study.” What’s more bizarre is that the results of her study seem to indicate that the subjects could not differentiate between “Merlot in a Champagne, red wine or Martini glass,” a finding that would not have pleased Georg Riedel at all. It turns out that the printed account of her study was really the inaccurate representation of her senior thesis presentation at a meeting by a reporter. In other words, the reporter seemed to ignore Russell’s conclusion, according to her. When Russell attempted to have newspapers correct the results, they did not call back.
Fast forward, once again, to a November 24, 2008 article in Wineaccess entitled Stemware: What’s the Benefit? This article reviews the results of a couple of studies, both of which conclude that shape of the glass is not significantly instrumental in altering the aromas or flavors of the wine. One study found little difference in the perception of wine aromas by non expert subjects when a California Cabernet Sauvignon was placed in four different shaped glasses. Whether “expert” tasters would have discerned a difference is speculation. A second study referred to subjects who consumed wine at least once a week and tasted Merlot from three alternatively shaped glasses. They did not notice any difference in tannin levels amongst the three glasses. In this study, the tasting was blind and the wine aerated in the different glasses. The final study noted was amongst experts, testing a “toasted” Spanish wine in nine different glasses but non blind, meaning the experts could observe and touch the glassware. The group did seem to prefer one of the glasses, the cask aged spirits glass. So with all this in mind, is there any basis for choosing wine stemware? Actually, I think that there is.
Let’s tackle the easiest rational first, aesthetics. It’s hard to argue that fine crystal stemware does not accentuate the elegance of a dining experience.
Add a little wine this gem, give it swirl and any wine consumer will thrill at the sight. If you are purchasing these glasses for beauty, then have at it! We decorate our home with fine furnishings and art, often for décor as much as functionality. We wear jewelry for beauty and show. So why not fine crystal stemware? Makes sense to me.
If you are purchasing the stemware in the belief that the wine will smell and taste more vibrant due to the shape of the glass, you’re going to have to dig out some convincing studies for me. Thus far, there have been none to my knowledge. So despite this caveat, why do wine lovers still spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars, on very expensive stemware in the belief that it improves wine profile? (Mind you, now, this is my opinion). I believe that it is rooted in psychology.
Attendees of the Riedel presentation usually agree that Max is a very persuasive and impassioned believer in his stemware. He makes a very convincing argument that the shape of the glass bowl makes or breaks the wine’s aromatic and flavor profile. I have read accounts of his seminar from attendees, including wine experts, who have entered skeptical and emerged convinced. It’s certainly possible that attendees and wine enthusiasts in general want to believe that the money that they have invested or are about to invest in these beautifully crafted glass sculptures, is warranted. There are studies galor that cite the influence on the masses of an impassioned speaker.
As well, we are all aware of the placebo effect where the claim of an action or suggestion actually produces the desired result. If we believe something to be so, it may be that chemical responses on the brain and other organs actually provide a true and measurable result. Taking a placebo to lower blood pressure has actually been documented to work simply because the patient believes it to be beneficial. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine being convinced that you must own the correct shaped wine stemware to fully enjoy your wine. And if you happen to be collector of fine wine, you certainly don’t want to risk minimizing the experience with discount stemware. I have known very savvy wine collectors and experts who have amassed an impressive collection of fine stemware over the years, believing that it makes a difference in the sensory experience of wine appreciation. If that experience is through visual appreciation of the highly crafted crystal, filled with rich and colorful wine, then I would agree. But if you are going to try to convince me that sniffing and tasting are dependent upon the glass, you have some work to do. Meanwhile, don’t become so lost in the glass that you forget to enjoy the wine and the smiles it brings by sharing with family and friends.