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How Critics Taste Wines - Glassware

Stemware companies will tell you that the glass a wine is served in can make a big difference it smells and tastes. They’re right. The shape, thickness and micro texture of a glass determines how aromas hit your nose and the wine lands on your tongue. That being the case, stemware can color critics’ impressions of wines too.

This is the second article in my series about the wine tasting methods of prominent wine critics. The first article covered blind tasting. Today’s focus is stemware.

Most stemware designed for tasting high-quality wines is good. There can be significant differences between designs, but those discrepancies are much less significant than when comparing a serious wine glass to a thick-walled ornamental goblet, a mason jar, a plastic cup, or even the normal-looking but clunky glasses used in restaurants without serious wine programs—all of these are awful and no professional critic would use them for critical tasting.

Aside from avoiding the losers above, the most important thing for reviewers is consistency. It’s okay if the glass they use isn’t optimized for the specific variety being tasted. Problems only arise when the same variety of wine is tasted in different types of glasses within a flight or on a number of different tasting dates. Critics try to judge every wine on it’s own, but comparisons to benchmark wines for a variety and region are important. For example, Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate uses the same glass she did when was studying for her Master of Wine test. She has a mental library of many thousands of wines all tasted in the same glass, making those comparisons straightforward.

Within the realm of glass shapes and sizes, one is particularly common among critics: the Riedel Riesling Grand Cru/Zinfandel glass. It is the Swiss Army knife of stemware. In their book, Secrets of the Sommeliers , Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay wrote, “if they were restricted to only one glass from which to taste all wine for the rest of their lives—red and white—a majority [of sommeliers we polled] named the Riedel Riesling glass as their vessel of choice.”

Riedel Riesling Grand CruFor reviewers,, the compact design—just a 13oz total capacity—is convenient too. Large flights of wine take up less space on the table leaving plenty of room for a notebook or computer, and you can fit more of them in the dishwasher. With the relatively short stem and lightweight bowl, these glasses are also less likely to tip over or snap at the stem than big red wine glasses.

Among reviewers who use this glass, or a very similar design, for tasting virtually all wines are Ray Isle of Food and Wine, Lisa Perotti-Brown, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, Doug Wilder of Purely Domestic Wine Report and Joe Czerwinski of Wine Enthusiast. Echoing the sommeliers, Jon says it “does the best job of showing the widest range of wines.” It’s even better for sparkling wines than are traditional flutes which, Rajat Parr says, “should be abolished.”

Within that style though, there is variation. Lisa uses the Riedel Sommeliers Zinfandel/Riesling Grand Cru which is ultra-thin, mouth-blown crystal, stands 8 7/8" tall and has a 13 3/8oz bowl. They run $79 a stem. Ray is at the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes using the stemless and inexpensive Riedel O Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc tumblers . Stemless glasses do make swirling difficult though.

Jon uses the Riedel Vinum Riesling Grand Cru/Zinfandel glass which is half-an-inch shorter and has the slightly smaller bowl. They are mechanically blown, a bit more durable and retail for $59/pair. For home tasting, Jon sometimes uses the Cost Plus Connoisseur Zinfandel glass, which he says is virtually the same as those from Spiegelau (a good brand, now owned by Riedel.) These are a great deal at $36 for a set of six. Doug Wilder prefers >Eisch, whose Superior SensisPlus line of glasses are lead-free.

Joe Czerwinski uses the Riedel Vinum Gourmet glass . He says they have an even shorter stem to reduce breakage. That’s important at a place like Wine Enthusiast’s New York office where there are so many reviewers. Many hundreds of wines may be tasted each week. On that note, Joe adds that “they fit in the top rack of the dishwasher too.” (Riedel, by the way, says on their website that all of their glasses are dishwasher safe.) Wine & Spirits’ San Francisco office uses a glass that’s scaled down even further and has slightly thicker glass for yet more durability.

There are critics who take a different approach though. Among them are Dan Berger of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast, and I. We change glass styles to match the variety of wine being tasted.

We all use something similar to the Riedel Riesling glass for most white wines. Beyond that, Virginie says she uses “Bordeaux stems when appropriate; Burgundy when appropriate.” Dan Berger and I use an even wider range of glasses.

Dan and I use Burgundy bowls for both Pinot Noir and oaked Chardonnay. He uses Eisch red wine glasses for all other reds. He told me he finds Eisch more break-resistant than Riedel, which supports claims made on Eisch’s website. I use the Riedel Vinum Riesling or Riedel Restaurant Riesling for some reds, particularly Zinfandel, the Syrah glass for Rhone variety reds and the Cabernet Sauvignon glasses for Bordeaux variety reds.

The Riedel Restaurant series of glasses which Virginie and I have are glass rather than crystal. Virginie says, “I can put them in my dishwasher and yet they don’t retain the smell of dishwasher fluid or anything else.”

Why do I use so many different glasses? There are a few reasons.

  • I like to give wines their best opportunity to shine and I do think that the shapes make a difference for some varieties.
  • I have grown accustomed to using that variety of glasses over many years, so my mental references are consistent.
  • Wineries and trade tastings tend to use such glasses, so my home tasting experience and those I have in the field are consistent.
  • I like to try to mirror the tasting situation avid consumers might have. If they buy into Riedel’s marketing, that’s going to mean a lot of different glasses.
  • I’ve owned the glasses a long time and don’t have breakage issues.

However, the bottom line is that, for reviewing wines or honing your own palate, the most important thing is using the same, clean, good-quality stemware consistently.

  • If you only want to deal with one type of glass, that’s fine. Go with the Riedel Riesling style.
  • To save money, and perhaps improve durability, consider the Cost Plus Connoisseur version or, if you have access to them, Riedel Restaurant.
  • If you want a broader selection, you still only need three types: Riesling/Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux and Pinot Noir/Burgundy.


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