Here’s a simple experiment you can try at home and amaze your friends. Select a favorite bottle of white wine and another of red. Set out three or four different glasses for each person. For example, you might use a big, bowl-shaped wine glass, a small, thick-rimmed glass, a simple tumbler, and anything else that you have in your cupboard. Then have everyone take a small taste of each wine from each glass.
Believe it or not, even a modestly decent wine will taste different in every glass. Some will mute the flavor, some will emphasize odd scents, some will have no scents at all. If you are fortunate, one glass will present the wine perfectly, and everyone will agree that this is how the wine is supposed to taste. This is a wine fact that almost defies belief—until you try it for yourself.
When you pour a great wine into a not-so-great glass, it turns into a very ordinary wine. This happens quite frequently in restaurants, but you may also encounter bad stemware at wineries, at public tastings, and at dinner parties. Out comes a terrific bottle of wine, and it’s served in a glass that is too small, too thick, colored blue or green, stained or smelling of detergent. With these bad conditions, you won’t be able to discern the true flavor offered by the wine.
Insisting on a good glass is not snobbery; it’s common sense. If you want to get all the flavor out of every wine you pour, whether it cost you ten dollars or one hundred dollars, you owe it to yourself to invest in good stemware. It does not have to be terribly expensive to be good.
There are now specific glasses made for every major varietal and region in the world, and they do work. But don’t panic. It’s not necessary to stock up on them all. You’ll do just fine with a few well-chosen glasses that are matched to your own wine buying, drinking, and entertaining habits.
What you need will depend upon the type of entertaining you do and the quality of the wines you serve. For a picnic or deck party, at which you will be pouring simple wines from current vintages, a couple dozen clear glass tumblers may suffice. For better wines and more formal tastings or intimate dinner gatherings, you’ll want a selection of stemware that allows each guest a flute-shaped glass for sparkling wines, a tapered, ten to twelve-ounce glass for white wines, and a larger, rounder glass for red wines.
Avoid colored glass, even if just the stem is tinted. You want to be able to see the wine’s own color. If you use a dishwasher, run the glasses through hot water only; don’t use detergent. Toss out those tiny, thick-lipped glasses with the rolled rims; use tumblers instead. Remember, size matters. Your glass should be large enough to hold three or four ounces of wine without being more than one third full. You need the airspace to properly display the wine’s aroma. Remember, aroma = flavor!
The right glassware is the single most important aspect to setting yourself up for a good tasting experience. Close behind is serving your wines at the right temperature. Whether white or red, wines that are too cold will lose all aromas and much of their flavor. Wines that are too warm may lose their crispness and turn flabby and volatile; heat also intensifies the impression of alcohol. Sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines are served at cooler temperatures, to be sure. But they, too, can be over-chilled, causing their aromas to be muted and their flavors to be less detailed.
Over the course of a tasting, wines will slowly warm up, so it is not a bad idea to start them out on the cool side. For dry white wines, rosés or very light reds, such as Beaujolais, this means around 45°F—about twenty minutes in the fridge will be just about right. For red wines, just a bit above cellar temperature, roughly 58-60°F, is the best starting point. Sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines can be chilled in the fridge for an hour or more before being served.
It’s not a good idea to put your whites or reds in an ice bucket unless they are way too warm and you need to chill them quickly. Wine responds best to gentle treatment. Whenever possible, try to plan ahead, allowing sufficient time to bring the wine to its proper serving temperature gradually. A regulated wine cellar, or better yet, a wine cooler with variable temperature controls, will do the job well. You will be rewarded with appealing scents and flavors from the moment the cork is pulled until the last glass is drained.