Amplifying the Seduction of a Good Bottle

By Eric Pfanner Published: December 7, 2012

KUFSTEIN, AUSTRIA — Wine glasses serve many purposes. Some look good on the shelf. Others double as vases. A small but growing number excel at the job for which they were intended: maximizing the enjoyment of wine. Wine glasses being made at the Riedel  factory in Kufstein, Austria. The company  says its  designs  are rooted in science.                           

For this trend we can largely thank — or curse, if you have ever broken one of its handmade glasses — an Austrian glass maker named Riedel.       

After World War II, Claus Riedel, a descendant of a long line of glass makers from Bohemia, settled in this small city in Tirol, watched over by a giant fortress that guards the upper reaches of the Inn River. Here, he discovered what was then a novel concept: Wines taste different when drunk from different shapes or sizes of glasses.       

In 1958, Mr. Riedel designed an iconic glass especially for red Burgundy — a huge, elegant, hand-blown goblet that emphasizes the fragrant complexity of the pinot noir grape. Its performance was revolutionary, its design beautiful; an example is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.       

Claus Riedel’s son Georg, who has overseen the company since the 1970s, took the idea of specialization and ran with it, designing dozens of shapes and sizes of glasses suited to different kinds of wine. There are Riedel glasses for Bordeaux or Brunello, for chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, for offbeat wines like Grüner Veltliner and for outright rarities like Kalterer See Auslese. There is one design for X.O. Cognac, another for V.S.O.P. Cognac.       

Riedel, which sells 55 million glasses a year, insists that the company’s designs are rooted in science; the shape of a glass can direct wine to a certain point on the tongue, emphasizing different qualities based on the distribution of taste buds that detect sweet, sour, salty or bitter flavors. While I have also seen research that questions the validity of this thesis, Riedel glasses do seem to make wine taste better.       

“We are the loudspeaker, the Bang & Olufsen, the Bose, the amplifier,” Mr. Riedel said over a glass of Pomerol in Kufstein. “We don’t make the music, we amplify it.”       

Do you really need a library full of these glasses? Do you really need to spend €50, or $65, or more on the glasses in Riedel’s handmade Sommelier series, which includes the Burgundy Grand Cru model?       

Of course not. In most cases, one or two well-designed glasses — one for red, one for white — will do just fine. The quality of the glass matters more than the precise specifications. I’d rather drink Riesling out of a good Chablis glass than out of a bad Riesling glass, for example. And Riedel’s bulbous Burgundy glass works well for Champagne, even though it is very different from a typical pinched Champagne flute.       

What makes a good wine glass? It should be clear and smooth, rather than etched or colored, so that you can see the liquid inside. Size is a factor, too. For many red wines, a glass with a broad base is best, providing greater exposure to air, so that the wine can “breathe.” White wines and older, fragile reds sometimes benefit from a narrower glass with a deeper base, which helps preserve the freshness and the fruit.       

A tapered glass with an opening that is narrower than the base helps to concentrate the aromas. But if you can’t get your nose into the glass, you’re missing out. Much of the “taste” of a wine is actually in the smell. Don’t believe this? Try plugging your nose while taking a sip.       

With any glass, how you use it matters as much as its quality. Never fill it more than one-quarter to one-third full. Otherwise, you won’t be able to smell or taste the wine properly.       

While Riedel’s Sommelier series remains a benchmark, other glasses, some of them costing a lot less, have embraced the basics of good design. These include machine-made lines from Riedel, as well as another brand that the company owns, Spiegelau. Schott Zwiesel and Chef & Sommelier are two other good choices.       

At the high end, Riedel is getting new competition from manufacturers like Baccarat, which recently introduced a line called Chateau Baccarat that is aimed at wine connoisseurs.       

“We love the competition,” Mr. Riedel says. “The more people who are sensitive to the importance of quality wine glasses — yes, we say welcome.”       

Mr. Riedel, who is 62, plans to hand over the reins to his son, Maximilian, next year, but is still thinking about ways to expand the business. New wine glasses are already in the works.       

Another possibility, Mr. Riedel said, is to adapt the company’s philosophy of differentiation to hot drinks. Imagine having one glass for Earl Grey tea, another for Darjeeling, one for Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, another for Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.

For wine, the best rival to Riedel in terms of performance that I have come across is another Austrian manufacturer, called Zalto. All of its glasses are hand-blown, mostly by artisans working across the border in the Czech Republic.       

The Zalto range is considerably smaller, with only a handful of shapes. While the company rejects the idea of varietal-specific designs, it does have a quirky selling device of its own.       

“The curve of the bowls are tilted at the angles of 24°, 48° and 72°, which are in accordance to the tilt angles of the Earth,” the company’s Web site states.       

It’s a philosophy in keeping with the trend toward biodynamic winemaking, which emphasizes harmony with the natural patterns and processes of the earth. When the Romans stored their food in amphorae whose shapes were governed by these angles, it lasted longer and tasted better, Zalto says.       

Why this would make wine taste better, too, is not entirely clear, but the Zalto glasses do seem to do the job. Their most striking characteristics are lightness and thinness. Though the bowls are generously sized, the rims barely glance your tongue, and the stems are so petite that you hardly feel them in your fingers.       

The idea, said Martin Hinterleitner, chief executive of Zalto, was to put as little as possible between the wine and the drinker. “We say the wine is the hero,” he said by telephone from Gmünd, Austria. “We think you can cover all the wines in the world with a few glasses.”       

As a single, all-purpose glass, Zalto’s Universal model is hard to beat. At around €30, it is also a reasonably good value for a hand-blown glass.       

Another good all-around choice, at a slightly lower price, is Riedel’s Grand Cru Riesling glass from the Vinum series: a high-end machine-made line.       

For everyday use, I also like Chef & Sommelier. Its glasses cost less than €10 and are made of a virtually indestructible material; I’ve dropped them on the tile floor of my kitchen and they’ve simply bounced back, intact.       

Glasses from Riedel, Spiegelau, Chef & Sommelier and Schott Zwiesel are widely available at wine shops and department stores, as well as online. Zalto is a bit more difficult to find at retail, but the company sells and ships from its own Web site.       

For special bottles, no other glasses make quite such an impression as Riedel’s Sommelier series. But there are limits to what even a great glass can do.       

“We cannot perform miracles,” Mr. Riedel says. “We cannot transform a mediocre wine into a grand cru.”