FOOD & DRINK / A question of glass distinction: Consider the shape of your glass, counsels Kathryn McWhirter. It will influence your enjoyment

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FEW would dispute that the shape of a wine glass is a question of taste. But how many would guess that the taste in question is not simply the aesthetic appeal of the bowl and stem but that of the wine inside?

I was first convinced of the glass effect a couple of years ago by Georg Riedel, suave travelling evangelist of his family's north Austrian glass firm. He had gathered a score of wine writers and Masters of Wine and served us four red wines, each poured into four different designs of wine glass, from a basic Paris goblet to what looked like a fine crystal goldfish bowl - a Riedel Burgundy glass. We had to identify the four matching quartets of wine, an exercise that most of us would normally be able to perform blindfolded. Only one of us, the wine buyer for Waitrose, got it right. For me, the same wine scored sometimes one star, sometimes three.

For Riedel, our confusion came as no surprise. How a wine tastes, he says, is largely a matter of where it first hits the mouth. His aim with a red Burgundy (often a bit tannic and acidic) is to direct the wine flow towards the tip of the tongue. This being where we perceive sweetness and fruit, these attributes will override the astringency of the tannin (sensed at the back of the tongue) and the acidity (tasted down the tongue's sides and under-carriage). A good, enclosed tulip or bowl-shape is also important to trap and concentrate the aromas. Riedel has different glasses for each type of wine: young and mature claret, Chianti Classico, Alsace, white Burgundy and so on - each has its own glass.

Few of us, wine writers included, can afford such an array. (Even Georg Riedel himself travels the world with a little case containing four of just one design - his favourite, the Chianti Classico - 'in case I go to a restaurant where they do not have an appropriate glass'.) But the important common design point of the Riedel glasses, and of all my other favourites, is a tulip shape, bulbous in the middle and curving in at the top. You simply get more aroma (and more taste) out of this shape. (The exception are Riesling, young white wine and red Burgundy glasses, kinking very slightly outward at the rim.)

For the serious wine-lover, cut glass and coloured glass are out. Both obscure the colour of wine, and cut glass has to be made much thicker. Somehow, wine of whatever level tastes finer out of thinner glass.

The huge (and for the most part to me rather unwieldy) Riedel Sommelier range of glasses goes down better in America than among the modest Britons. Prices of pounds 23 for a young white wine glass to pounds 39 for a Burgundy Premier Cru glass are difficult to swallow. Riedel's main British competitor, handmade glass producer John Jenkins of Petersfield, has a less expensive Wine Masters range (from pounds 9.95 for white wine to pounds 12.95 for Burgundy) for those with over-sized tastes. Though the biggest of both these ranges holds just under one litre, the idea is to pour only a 'normal' serving. 'A three to four-ounce pour is always correct whatever the size of the glass,' Riedel says. (Traditional wisdom for a normal size glass is to fill it no more than two-thirds full. You can then swirl the wine in your glass to release the aromas without spilling it.)

More practically and affordably, Riedel make another, smaller range of glasses called Vinum, nearly as varied in shape as the Sommelier range. These are machine-made rather than hand- blown, but very thin glass nevertheless, lovely shapes, and often to my mind better for looks, feel and taste than the big ones. Vinum glasses range from about pounds 11 for a port or Riesling glass to pounds 12.50 for Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon. John Jenkins has a number of lovely ranges at this sensible-luxury level. This company, too, consults specialist panels of tasters when developing new glasses or improving existing ones, but the glasses in each range are of matching shapes.

I especially like the Chateau glasses from Bohemia in the Czech Republic, the ancient European centre of glass-blowing, imported to this country by John Jenkins. These are wafer-thin and rather bulbous in shape, a bit like a large Cognac glass but with a long, fine stem ( pounds 10.25 for white wine to pounds 14.60 for Burgundy). The more tulip-shaped Classic range is also from Bohemia and also delightfully but worryingly wafer-thin ( pounds 12.50 for white wine to pounds 15.95 for Burgundy). The French firm of Baccarat is another contender for top quality, modestly sized glasses, but prices are prohibitive at pounds 45 to pounds 77 per glass.

There's good glassware on a budget, however, that still passes the taste tests and probably gets smashed rather less often. John Jenkins's British- made Chantilly range ( pounds 6.95 for white wine to pounds 8.85 for Burgundy) is a lovely hand-blown tulip shape, made of quite thin glass. Wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke have their own good range of glasses in a sturdier, fatter, more closed tulip shape at pounds 5.20 for a 'small' wine glass, and pounds 5.45 for a large. Dartington's hand-blown Chateauneuf range, tall-stemmed, attractively squat-bowled tulips, are also good (between pounds 8.75 and pounds 11.20).

All these glasses are widely available in department stores and glass specialists. For local stockists ring Riedel's UK agent: 071-624 2493; John Jenkins glasses: 0730 821811; and Dartington: 0805 22321.

(Photograph omitted)