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QUESTION: When is a pounds 6.90 wine glass a cheap wine glass? Answer: when it's a glass made by Riedel. This ancient Austrian "Vinum" range costs pounds 11 and upwards. With its top-of-the-line, handmade "Sommelier" range, the figures begin at pounds 29.50. Your pounds 6.90 will merely buy you one of the "basic" glasses.

Riedel (rhymes with "needle") has been making glass for 250 years, but the relevant portion of the firm's interesting history begins in 1952, when Walter Riedel and his son Claus-Josef bought a glassworks in Kufstein, Austria. They opened for business in 1957, and within a year began launching new wine glass designs which had nothing to do with the clunky, cut-glass monstrosities of an earlier era.

The Riedel glasses were modern, thin and elegantly streamlined. More important, they reflected the family's views on how the size and shape of a drinking vessel could affect the appreciation of the liquid it contains. The arguments, though complicated, boil down to a few fundamentals. Each grape and wine style has distinctive properties which are sensed on certain parts of the tongue. If you can design a glass that delivers the wine "correctly", you will maximise the wine's potential and the drinker's enjoyment. A programme of research followed which aimed at setting out optimum glasses for each wine.

Georg Riedel, the son of Claus-Josef, now runs the company and travels worldwide proselytising about proper wine glasses. He puts the case this way: "The glass is a mirror that shows what there is in the wine. As long as the wine is well made, its qualities will be highlighted by a good glass. If the glass is a bad one, the message of the wine will be distorted." And his idea of a bad glass might have been formulated at my house, where vinous libations appear in cheap Paris goblets bought by the dozen. When I told him this, he worked hard to conceal a grimace. "Those glasses have a thick, rolled edge and can't control the flow of the wine. It moves in a wide flow," he said, which is inimical to careful sipping. Riedel glasses have thin, polished rims which allow for a perfectly smooth transit to the oral cavity.

It may sound like rocket science, but it's not. "This is not mathematics," says Riedel, "this is pleasure." They don't use computer modelling or high-tech tricks, preferring tasting panels who explore how the delivery of a particular glass affects the sensory qualities of a particular wine.

At the tasting, in which I took part, serving a California Chardonnay (Acacia Caviste) and an Antinori Tignanello in five different glasses apiece, the differences were more pronounced in the red wine than the white and on the nose than on the palate. But they were unmistakable. When you pour wine into a glass, you create a new environment for a living product. Just as a tiger will be happier living in the wild than in a zoo, a fine wine will be happier in a glass that lets it develop its full potential.

To test my impressions from the tasting, I opened a pair of bottles at home and sampled them from one Riedel glass, the Chianti shape, alongside one of my goblets. The wines were a cheap Chianti Serristori 1995 (Somerfield, pounds 3.29 till 17 June) and a wonderful "Super Tuscan" from M&S: Canfera 1994 (pounds 8.99). The cheap wine showed much better on the nose in the Riedel glass, though I can't say its flavour is anything more than basic. But the Canfera's complex fruit reached both nose and tongue far more impressively from the Riedel glass.

Conclusion: if you think while you drink, a well-designed glass like a Riedel will make the experience more satisfying. It will also make it more pleasurable - these are beautiful objects to handle and behold.

Incidentally, Mr Riedel confirmed my view that wine glasses should not be washed in a dishwasher. So if you treat yourself to a Riedel, handle it with care. You won't turn plonk into pearls, but you will get the very best out of whatever you buy.

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