The News
Saturday 24 of February 2024

The Physics of a Glass

Wine glasses,photo: Bob Fila
Wine glasses,photo: Bob Fila
The shape of a glass can determine where liquid enters the mouth, but does that really change the taste of the wine?


Having met Georg Riedel before, I had already heard his spiel on how the right wine stemware can affect how a wine tastes, but, frankly, I was not all that convinced.

Sure, wine tastes better out of a crystal goblet than out of a plastic or paper tumbler, and I wouldn’t dare serve a fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape out of a throw-away beaker.

And I have long understood the reasons for larger red wine stemware as opposed to a white wine glass. (Red wines tend to be bolder than their white counterparts and therefore require a larger bowl to allow all the aromas and flavors to emerge.)

But when I first heard the president and 10th-generation heir of the dynasty of the world’s most-expensive stemware manufacturer (we’re talking $70 to $120 per glass) proclaim that a well-stocked bar should have at least three kinds of red wine glasses, I simply figured that Riedel was hawking his Austrian family brand and trying to court an even larger demand for his pricy crystal.

But last time Riedel came to Mexico, he decided to host a wine (or maybe I should say glass) tasting evening at City Market with about 50 restaurant managers, food critics and wine sellers in which he definitely made his point that stemware can make or break a wine’s flavor and bouquet.

KRT LIFESTYLE STORY SLUGGED: REIDEL KRT PHOTO BY BOB FILA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (KRT3 - October 21) Reidel Glas is shaped to fit the drink being served and enhance it's taste. The Overture Red glass, left, is an all-purpose stemware that is not too large for white wines and not too small for reds; Vinum Prestige Cuvee, center, is a champaigne flute wiht a wider bowl for tete de cuvee or bottle0aged champagnes; Vinum Burgundy, right, features a squat shape with a wide bowl th concentrates the vapors of pinot noir. (TB) AP PL KD 1999 (Vert) (gsb)
The Overture Red glass (L) is an all-purpose stemware that is not too large for white wines and not too small for reds; Vinum Prestige Cuvee (C) is a champagne flute with a wider bowl for tete de cuvee or bottle-aged champagnes; Vinum Burgundy (R) features a squat shape with a wide bowl that concentrates the vapors of pinot noir. Photo: Chicago Tribune/Bob Fila

The unusual wine glass tasting began with a sampling of not wine, but water. Unsparkling Italian Acqua Panna water, to be precise. Ice cold Acqua Panna, at that.

Each participant was given three Riedel red wine glasses – one, which we would later learn, was designated for lighter red varietals like a New World Pinot Noir, one for medium-bodied red wines like an Old World Syrah, and one for full-bodied wines like a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Pinot glass was considerably wider than the other two glasses with a tapered opening that curved back out at the very top.

Glass Two, intended for Syrah, had a slightly larger opening and was much less rounded than Glass One.

And Glass Three had a very big opening and was thinner and far less rounded than the previous glasses.

Riedel instructed the attendees to fill each of their glasses with a couple centimeters worth of water and then to see how the water entered the mouth.

“The wine glass is a means of transporting the wine between the bottle and the palate,” said Riedel. “But how the glass is shaped determines what part of the palate the wine reaches.”

Riedel asked the participants to take a sip from each glass and notice how our tongues reacted.

Because the water was ice cold, it was easy to sense where the water landed in our mouths.

With the Pinot glass, the water went straight to the lower front of the mouth and did not touch the top of the tongue until it was swilled.

Riedel explained that the Pinot glass was engineered with a shape that not only focuses the delicate bouquet of the wine when it is inhaled, but delivers the liquid directly to the front of the mouth.

With the second glass, the water went straight to the back of the mouth, because the shape of the reverse curve caused the tongue to move up against the surface of the glass.

And with the third glass, the water first forced an automatic reflex reaction of a small gulp. The cold water was then distributed over the tongue and throughout the entire mouth.

Photo Courtesy of Riedel
Photo Courtesy of Riedel

“There’s an architecture to the glass that influences how wine enters your mouth,” Riedel said. “We have studied the physics of human anatomy and how we take in liquids for more than 60 year to develop glasses that deliver wine to a particular part of the palate.”

Riedel noted that the shape of the glasses and the height of the bowls force the drinker to tilt their head back at the right angle to change which part of the mouth the wine hits.

Okay, I was now convinced that the shape of the glass could determine where the liquid entered my mouth, but would that really change the taste of wine?

The second part of Riedel’s experiment answered that question for me once and for all.

After allowing us to check and recheck how the three glasses directed the water to specific parts of our mouths, Riedel asked everyone to pour out the water and pour some pinot noir into each glass.

Amazingly, when drunk from Glass One, the wine was sweet and fruity with a balanced touch of flowers, from Glass Two is was sour and minerally (even salty) and from Glass Three was full of spice and woodsy tangs.

The reason, Riedel said, is that the front of the mouth (where Glass One delivered the wine) is where our sweet taste buds are concentrated, and the back is where our bitter receptors are located.

The receptors for salty, sour and minerally tastes are in the center of the tongue.

The New World Pinot Noir had strong mineral tinges that if drunk from Glass Two made it unpleasant, and strong tannins that could overpower its fruity berry and floral palate if drunk from the Cabernet glass.

With a Bordeaux glass and Burgundy glass, you've got all your wine serving needs met. A fishbowl shape Burgundy glass, like the two in back, handles pinot noir, other delicate reds and chardonnay. A straight-sided, tapering at top Bordeaux glass, like those in front, is for everything else: big reds, dry whites, rieslings, dessert wines and sparkling wines. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
A fishbowl shaped Burgundy glass, like the two in back, handles pinot noir, other delicate reds and chardonnay. A straight-sided, tapering at top Bordeaux glass, like those in front, is for everything else: big reds, dry whites, rieslings, dessert wines and sparkling wines. Photo: Chicago Tribune/E. Jason Wambsgans

But in the Pinot Noir glass, the fruit and flowers were front and center and the wine was delightful.

Riedel conducted a similar test with a Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, and again his predictions of which glass would be suitable for each wine proved true.

To drive home his point, Riedel presented one last taste test.

Much to the chagrin of many of the wine connoisseurs and want-to-be wine connoisseurs present, he brought out one last glass, a strange highball tumbler with a rounded open bowl on an inverted base, and a chilled bottle of Coca-Cola.

“The glass can make a difference in your enjoyment of any beverage,” Riedel said.

And with that he had us sample part of the Coke in a standard cup, followed by the Coca-Cola glass his company had engineered for the Atlanta, Georgia-based soft drink conglomerate.

Sure enough, the Coke tasted better in the Riedel glass.

So, does this mean that I am going to run out and spend my entire life’s savings on a 100-glass collection of Riedel stemware and Coke glasses?

Probably not.

But if I am dining in a high-end restaurant and order a Pinot Noir that is served in a Cabernet glass, I might just reprimand the waiter for not showcasing my wine in the proper stemware.