Size really matters: Why matching the wine glass to the grape is crucial

Kate Hilpern has her tastebuds taken by surprise

In wine-tasting circles, the glass is almost as important to the experience as the vino poured into it. From the shape and size of the bowl to the thickness of the rim, the design of the glass is long renowned for having the ability to either enhance or ruin a wine's bouquet, taste and balance. But what about the rest of us? Does quality stemware really make the average person's wine taste measurably better? And do we really benefit from having one glass for Burgundy and another for Bordeaux?

For those who have a glassware fetish (and wineglass sales suggest that, unless we're a nation of ham-fisted washer-uppers, many of us do), the good news is that it's widely accepted that well thought-out, high-end wine glasses can make a huge difference to our perception of wine. The bad news is that many (even top-drawer) wineglass manufacturers get it wrong and forking out a fortune isn't an automatic ticket to taste.

It was the Austrian glassmakers Riedel who as good as invented the functional wineglass. Back in the late Fifties, Claus Riedel created a range of glasses shaped like eggs rather than the traditional 'V' or tulip shape. The theory (still accepted today) was that the tongue has different taste sensitivities relating to acidity, bitterness, saltiness and sweetness. He must have jumped with joy at the marketing potential. By doing nothing more than changing the rim, depth and diameter of the glass, he could direct a wine to particular areas of the palate and in doing so emphasise its more favourable attributes while masking the more negative ones.

Riedel went onto create many different shapes for different wines, and still manufactures 40 different glasses in its most expensive, hand-blown lead crystal Sommelier range. Meanwhile, its machine-made Vinum range boasts 25 styles, many styled specifically to keep up with New World wines.

Given that this Vinum range remains Riedel's best-selling one – and one of the most popular across the whole market – it was these glasses I decided to use to put all this theory to the test.

Now, let's be clear: I like my wine, but I'm no wine buff. Truth be told, I'm not even very good at swirling wine in the glass – an embarrassing shortcoming, but not one that stops me taking great pleasure in good wine. I also happen to need some new wine glasses. And so, I decided, I might just be the ideal candidate to see if quality glassware really is all it's cracked up to be if you're, well, a wine amateur.

We start by cracking open a bottle of Fortnum and Mason Tourraine AC 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (£7.90), which Martin Turner – Riedel's representative – pours into what he calls the Joker glass. It's a bog-standard 175ml glass "still used too often in pubs and restaurants that should know better", he says. No kidding. There's no hint of the fruit and floral notes you'd expect from such a wine – a result, explains Turner, of the small capacity of the glass and the wide diameter of the opening. The former means there's no chance for the aromas to develop, and the latter means the nose can't capture them. The taste is equally disappointing, with an overriding impression of crisp acidity. If you ordered it with a meal, you'd pray that the starters would hurry up.

"Smell is the most rudimentary of the senses, and goes hand-in-hand with taste," says Charles East, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon based in London's Harley Street. Smell was originally a defence mechanism – your last chance before you taste something to tell whether it might be poisonous, he explains. "This is why the complexity of wines, and the volatile oils and aromas they give off, are much better concentrated in an egg-shaped glass." Indeed, on tasting the same wine from a Sauvignon Blanc glass (which deceptively holds half a bottle), the difference is astonishing. The primary aromas are pleasingly delicate and it tastes zesty, softer and smoother. Also noticeable is the glass – much finer and thinner, thanks to the lead crystal. Thick or rolled rims, a common feature of cheaper glasses, are Turner's absolute bugbear, having no hope at all of focusing the delivery of wine.

Many lead crystal wine glasses are, of course, gratifyingly heavy, especially cut glass. True wine lovers should avoid like the plague weighty glasses and inscriptions and designs on the bowl, however, as the less that comes between the wine and the palate, the better. That's why glass manufacturers ranging from Spiegelau to Ravenscroft constantly strive for completely colourless glassware, and indeed aim to make a rim that's barely noticeable at mouth.

The second wine, poured into the same glass, is a Warwick Estate 2008 South African Chardonnay from Stellenbosch (£11.80). A harsh mix of alcohol and wood prickles the back of my throat. I defy any wine appreciator to cope with more than one glass of this at a party. So I try it in a Chardonnay (Montrachet) glass instead – a large (this one holds a whole bottle), wide-bowled, wide-rimmed glass that many people would assume is for reds. The aroma of delicate citrus and honeyed tropical fruits is released and bizarrely, the wine feels more chilled – a result, I can only guess, of the alcohol and wood being tempered. Then there's the delivery of the fruit – at last.

So if big is better for big punchy, oak-aged Chardonnays, why not drink it out of a red wine glass, say a Burgundy one? I give it a try, but the extra 200ml capacity means there's too much space for the wine to deal with, even with the narrow aperture. The prickle returns.

Next up is the first of two red wines, a Fortnum and Mason Bourgogne 2004 Pinot Noir (£5.90), which I'm encouraged to try in the Chardonnay glass. It's disappointing on the nose and palate – confrontational, tart and thin. Yet in the larger, Burgundy glass it's silky, smooth and fruit-driven. I really like this glass – I decide it could be my stock red wine glass at home.

But then the second red – Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot 2006 Margaret River (Western Australia) (£17.50) stops me in my tracks. In the Burgundy glass, it's chewy and dry, almost gritty. I conclude that the wine needs a few more years in the bottle. So I try it in the taller, thinner and bolder Bordeaux glass and the change is amazing. It's velvet. Turner says it's because this glass guides the wine to the front of my mouth.

Even sceptics are often won over. One Cape Town-based wine expert, who doesn't "buy" the science of taste buds that Riedel bases its glasses on, admits, "Every time I've done a comparative glass tasting, I have felt a real difference in taste. So either they're right, or I'm even more suggestible than I thought." Silvano Giraldin, consultant to Just Great Wine and director of Le Gavroche, was also initially cynical, but little by little changed his mind. "It took years, but I am convinced now. I strongly believe the shape and finesse of the glass is very important."

Still, I can't help wondering about the other 21 glasses in this – or indeed any other top-end – range. Just how many does one household need? And at around about £20 a glass (and over £100 for some of the glasses in the renowned Oenologie range from Baccarat), they don't come cheap. Giraldin says that even in a restaurant serving the world's top wines, they stop at a couple of glasses for white and a couple for red. Meanwhile, at home, he settles for three – a Chardonnay glass, a Claret glass and Burgundy glass. "In the end, it's all about practicality."

Andrea Bravi, restaurant manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire – who recommends Spiegelau for high quality and durability – agrees. "It was once common practice in Four Seasons hotel restaurants to serve each wine in a different shape vessel. Today, with wine producers making so many different, interesting blends of grapes, it isn't practical. We find that a Bordeaux glass is a great style for most complex red structures; and a Montrachet/Chardonnay for whites."

Meanwhile, Jo Ahearne, a Master of Wine and Marks & Spencer's wine maker, uses just two types of glasses at home. "I've been to tastings with the Riesling glasses and Shiraz glasses and so on, and it's very easy to get quite geeky about it because you can really tell the difference.

"If I had a big house and wasn't such a clumsy washer-upper, I might buy more. Mind you, part of me thinks this is less to do with the exact shape and more about the glass feeling nice and decadent – a bit like drinking tea out of bone china. And you do get a lot of bloke-ishness about the size of red wine glasses; all that 'Mine's bigger than yours' attitude."

One of the main problems that quality stemware shoppers have is picking a brand, especially as many are similar in price. Speaking about Dartington's flagship range, WineMaster, the company's Richard Halliday, says, "The bowl shapes are similar to Riedel, so it can be hard. But there are always differences. In our case, our product is made in England and it's handmade, so the bowl and stem are blown from the same piece of glass. As a weld and join is a point of weakness, it gives it more inherent strength. Another difference is that Riedel's Vinum range is very thin, whilst ours is slightly thicker in the bowl. Obviously, to a lot of wine drinkers thin is positive, but practically that means fragile, and people get scared."

Crucially, Dartington's range is less comprehensive than Riedel's: "We have 13 glasses ranging from sherry and brandy to Shiraz and Chardonnay. Of those, most people only need a few."

Phew. Although a convert to the idea that a glass is so much more than a mere container for wine, the depth of my pockets is limited. I think I'll save up for two shapes, and if I get tempted by more I'll remind myself that even Mr Riedel only has eight varieties in his home.

Glass masterclass: Get the best from your wine

* Think of the relationship between wine and its vessel as akin to the relationship between recorded music and a hi-fi. Listening to great music on rubbish speakers does it no favours.

* Spend on a glass what you would spend on a bottle.

* The bowl should always be big enough to swirl the wine around in.

* Shop carefully. Choose shops where staff know their onions. Consider Fortnum & Mason for Riedel and Harrods for Dartington.

* A glass by Germany's Eisch that is controversially described as made of special "breathable" glass has been making an impression. And Riedel's range of 'O' glasses pushes out wine drinking boundaries by offering the classic wine glass shapes with no stem – for a more casual experience.

* Never buy glassware with silver or gold on the rim as wine reacts with metal, changing its taste.

* Keep your fancy glasses for the good bottles, especially those big reds. Use them every day at your peril.

* Save the washing-up until the morning, or use the dishwasher. Most cleaning instructions for high-end wine glasses require unhampered concentration – in short, not for the inebriated.

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