Is Hyperspecific Wine Stemware Worth It?

Animation of various glassware on blue background with wine being poured in them
Photos and animation by Tom Arena
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Whether it’s Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc, there’s a glass for that. The dizzying array of stemware designed to optimize the aromas and flavors of certain wine grapes and regions seems to have no limits.

Grüner fans can buy vessels shaped to capture its white pepper and citrus nuances, while new glassware lines claim to enhance specific styles of wine.

All of which begs the question: Have wine glasses become too specific?

Decades ago, things were simpler. In most U.S. bars or kitchens, red wine went into large round goblets, while smaller-sized glasses were reserved for white wine. Sparkling options were served in flutes or coupes.

That all changed in the 1970s, when Austrian glassmaker Claus J. Riedel introduced the first grape-specific stemware designs. It was expanded on over the years by his son, Georg, and grandson, Maximilian, Riedel’s 11th generation CEO and president. Collections include Veritas, Vinum and Winewings, whose airplane-inspired, flat-bottomed design represents the largest surface area of the company’s line of glassware.

Riedel's Veritas Collection, left to right: Champage, New World Shiraz, and Old World Pinot Noir glasses / Photo courtesy Riedel
Riedel’s Veritas Collection, left to right: Champage, New World Shiraz, and Old World Pinot Noir glasses / Photo courtesy Riedel

Astute collectors may have also noticed that bowls have become bigger, a trend that Riedel attributes to climate change.

“Over the years, we have expanded the size of many of our varietal-specific bowls to accommodate this rise in alcohol levels, to ensure they do not overpower the fruit flavors apparent in the wine,” says Maximilian.

Without getting into the science behind the weight and volatility of different wine compounds, such specialty glassware usually comes down to aromatics, says Winn Roberton, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C. He opts for the Schott Zwiesel Tritan stemware line.

As an experiment, Roberton poured Bordeaux into a Burgundy glass, and vice versa. In the “wrong” glass, the oak in the Bordeaux seemed too front and center, while the Burgundy’s aromas didn’t receive the lift he believed it needed.

Schott Zwiesel's Pure series of stemware / Photo courtesy Schott Zwiesel
Schott Zwiesel’s Pure series of stemware / Photo courtesy Schott Zwiesel

What makes less sense to Roberton is the overemphasis on stem length, specifically those meant for crisp, nonaromatic whites. If the intention is to keep a wine cooler, he recommends a smaller glass. That’s not to say he’s a fan of stemless options. To hold the bowl not only warms the wine, “the oil from your hands, with all of the aromas of what you’ve been touching, [gets] on the glass, and ultimately right by your nose, when you take a sip,” says Roberton.

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Drew Brady, operations director for New York City-based restaurant group Overthrow Hospitality, jokes that he’s seen everything “from the seemingly indestructible Libbey warship to the comically wide, ultradelicate Burgundy glass that feels like you’re raising the bowl of life.”

He admits that these endless glassware options have become part of the ritual, but it also can alienate many who view wine as elitist. “I’m weary it may create just one more unnecessary and expensive barrier to entry.”

Brady opts for The One, a line of glassware produced by Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. It’s touted as utilizing “one perfect shape that optimizes all wines and grapes.”

The One line of universal stemware by Andrea Robinson / Photo courtesy Andrea Robinson
The One line of universal stemware by Andrea Robinson / Photo courtesy Andrea Robinson

One topic that tends to generate consensus among somms, retailers and producers is glassware for sparkling wine. As romantic and celebratory as sparkling wine flutes and coupes may be, many pros agree that they can mask your bubbly’s aromas and fruit notes.

Michelle Lim Warner, a certified sommelier and cofounder/CEO of DCanter, a wine boutique in Washington, D.C., uses Riedel and Eisch Sensis Plus. She suggests a side-by-side comparison of bubbly poured in a flute and a larger white wine glass.

“A lot of what we taste is influenced by what we smell, so the right glassware is really about bringing those two senses together to create a fuller experience,” says Lim Warner.

Michelle Lim Warner, CEO of DCanter, sampling Sancerre with Eisch Sensis Plus glassware / Photo courtesy Michelle Lim Warner
Michelle Lim Warner, CEO of DCanter, sampling Sancerre with Eisch Sensis Plus glassware / Photo courtesy Michelle Lim Warner

Roberton says that a flute prevents someone from getting their nose into the bowl to get a good whiff. “But if you are going for that feeling of ‘electricity’ that comes from something really crisp like extra brut, go with the flute,” he says.

Some designers aim to match stemware to wine style, rather than a grape or region. Karen MacNeil, a Napa Valley-based wine consultant, educator and author of The Wine Bible, would hear her students often say “I like bold reds,” or “I like crisp whites.”

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MacNeil began to wonder why glasses couldn’t simply be based on flavor. She worked with producer Oneida to determine how many types of glassware would be needed to cover 99% of wine.

The result was Flavor First, which offers three glasses: Crisp & Fresh (bubbly, rosé and aromatic whites), Creamy & Silky (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Grenache) and Bold & Powerful (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Barolo, Zinfandel and Syrah).

Oneida's Flavor First, Creamy and Silky glass / Photo courtesy Oneida
Oneida’s Flavor First, Creamy and Silky glass / Photo courtesy Oneida

It’s a different approach that spurs varying opinions among wine professionals.

“Taking a broader stroke for universal results based on wine characteristics is the better way to do,” says Brady. Lim Warner calls the approach intuitive. Roberton appreciates the concept, though he says the Creamy & Silky designation is a bit confusing and more geared toward white wines.

To use specialty stemware or universal glasses comes down to personal choice. You shouldn’t fear that a wine won’t taste right in the ‘wrong” glassware. However, a bit of glassware specificity can still elevate the wine experience.

Published on May 27, 2021
Topics: Glassware