Glass etiquette – What’s in, What’s out

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rrrrrrrrJancis Robinson opens her glass cabinet to reveal how wine glasses have changed over the years

My glass cupboard, carefully designed with racks from which glasses can hang upside down, bears witness to fashions in wine glasses over the last few decades. I remember a time when I was just starting out as a wine drinker and was quite happy to drink out of a Paris goblet – those small globes with the top sliced off. I’d hate to now, I’m afraid. I’d resent the thickness of the glass and, particularly, the rim. They don’t go in enough towards the rim to really trap the all-important aroma of a wine.

I thought I was a real professional when I graduated in the late 1970s to wine tasting glasses which were specially designed with input from my old friend Michael Broadbent that had the imprimatur of the International Organization for Standardization. They are only about six inches high and the bowl is a relatively narrow tulip shape on a short stem. They certainly go in sufficiently towards the rim, but now that so many of us have graduated to larger glasses, they seem awfully cramped little things now. I occasionally serve port in them, because the wine is so strong and the ISO glass helps to keep quantities in check, but I am amazed at the number of merchants and wine producers who still use these little glasses to show off their wines. Once you have experienced a decent-sized wine glass, one that’s at the very least as tall as a paperback with a suitably-shaped simple bowl, there really is no going back. (It’s like not having access to a foil cutter once you have experienced the convenience and neatness of using one.)

Austrian glassmaker Georg Riedel must take a lot of the credit for making wine professionals more aware of the importance of glass quality. Admittedly not exactly for altruistic reasons, he spent much of the 1980s and 1990s conducting tastings designed to compare, invariably favourably, his glasses with other commonly used examples. He certainly raised my minimum standards to relatively thin glass, the right sort of bowl shape and a decent stem with which to swirl the wine without changing its temperature. I never went along with his idea that every different sort of wine needs its own sort of glass. The Riedel range of very slightly different sizes and shapes is truly mind boggling. Presumably the Riedel household has a special annexe with shelf after labelled shelf of glasses, but I have come more and more to the conclusion that a single glass size and shape is sufficient for all sorts of wines.

Even the champagne producers, or at least the most wine-minded of them, are increasingly admitting that the ideal champagne glass is remarkably like a standard wine glass. As do those who make top quality sherry and port. And I have always thought it illogical to serve white wines in smaller glasses than reds. White wines can be every bit as subtle as reds, and can benefit just as much from a nice big bowl to show off their complex aromas.

But along the top row of my glass cupboard, gathering dust, is a series of giant Riedel Bordeaux glasses that we all thought were the bees’ knees for top quality reds a decade or two ago. Now they seem ludicrously big and heavy, not to mention time-consuming to wash. I also have the odd glass with a strange shape – a ridge here, an indentation there – supposedly designed with enormous care to get the most out of any wine.

I then went through a phase of favouring angular bowls rather than rounded ones, filling the glasses just as far as the maximum diameter so as to maximise the surface area from which comes the all-important aroma, but my current favourite glasses have taken me into a whole new territory of sensual pleasure. Zalto glasses, originally made by a family with roots in Venice, are hand-blown, do not contain lead oxide so do not get cloudy, and combine an angular bowl shape with the thinnest glass I have yet to come across. Like experiencing the joys of a foil cutter, there is no going back.

Any other glass just seems a bit clod-hopping. Zaltos feel so delicate that you feel a) at one with the wine and b) sure that they are extremely fragile. But in fact they are designed, amazingly, expressly to be washed, and most importantly dried, in a regular dishwasher. We have had ours for several years now and our only breakages have been entirely our own fault.

They come in several sizes of which the broadest, the Bordeaux and Burgundy models, I reckon are too broad to be usefully stored on a domestic shelf. We use the medium-width ones called Universal for wines of all sorts. But I noted when on my tasting travels around France recently that one of the most thoughtful white burgundy producers Jean-Marc Roulot (who has designed special but simple wooden mounts in his cellar for the computers and notebooks of all of us digital wine reviewers) now serves his supremely nuanced Meursaults in the narrowest Zaltos of all, the White Wine shape – and very nice too.

A few hundred yards down the road, the Coches of Coche-Dury, producers of the most sought-after and expensive Meursaults of all, offer samples of their exceptionally fine wines to those lucky enough to taste there in funny little balloons like miniature cognac glasses. Even that fearsome taster Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy uses rather squat, bulbous tasting glasses of which I am pretty sure Georg Riedel and his children who now run the business would not approve, while Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey now uses the Universal Zalto.

At Domaine Ponsot, tasters are issued with fine, large burgundy bowls engraved with the Ponsot crest – very smart. In fact I am finding with every visit to wine country, wherever in the world it is, there is a discernible upgrading of glasses used. None too soon, I would argue. And I congratulate the Italians, always so conscious of la bella figura, on being the first nation of wine professionals widely to invest in top quality glasses. The only trouble is, for wine writers in a hurry like me, that so many of them like to painstakingly rinse the inside of each glass with every new wine. I think it’s a great idea for the first wine of the day, to ensure there are no traces of washing up liquid or impure water in the glass bowl, but to do it for every single new pour can be a real palaver.

Nevertheless, I do utterly applaud anyone who recognises just how important glasses are to wine lovers and am thrilled there is a wide range of possibilities, much cheaper than Zalto to choose from today.

From our Archives – This article appeared in Sommelier India wine magazine, December 2014

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