What glass is best for your wine?
This remains a hot topic, and one that isn’t completely clear (forgive a terrible pun). This is really quite needless, since the point of a wine glass is simply to be a vessel to enjoy a drop. So allow me to answer the basic, burning question quickly and painlessly.
Q: What is necessary for a good wine glass?
A: A clear, thin-walled glass with a generous bowl that tapers towards the rim.
Of course, within those parameters there is seemingly endless diversity, not to mention style differences such as for white, red, or sparkling wines. Nevertheless, everything else is a matter of preference, budget and nuance. Your budget will likely ultimately have a larger influence on the glasses that you choose than any other factor. That’s because the prices can range from under a Euro to well over €80 per glass, if you so wish.
You do not need to spend a fortune on glasses, but some investment can improve your enjoyment of the wines you drink. Most wine glasses will cover the basic function more or less well, and so much of the differences come down to aesthetics, the planned usage and small “improvements” designed to increase the enjoyment of the wine.
There are as many options available as there are wines on the market, it seems, and a great deal of obfuscation. Let’s clear that up a little bit here and now – and later on, have a look at what you are paying for with more expensive glassware.
What is important: the Basics
There is one simple element that separates a decent wine glass from (most) other glasses: the shape of the bowl. Wine is aromatic; most of the enjoyment of the wine comes from how it smells. Therefore, the primary difference separating a wine glass from other drinking glasses is its ability to concentrate and hold these aromas. For this reason, wine glasses worthy of being called such are always tulip-shaped, which is to say that they taper from the body of the bowl to the rim.
The shape of the bowl really is the single most important aspect of a wine glass, so you can comfortably stop reading here if that was all you were looking for.
Of course, you can buy glasses that are called “wine glasses” that do not taper in this way. My beloved Perigord glasses are an example (also an example for absurdly thick glass). But such glasses really do nothing for the enjoyment of wine beyond helping you to bring it to your mouth.
And no, I no longer use those Perigord glasses for wine.
The wine glass should have a bowl large enough to pour a portion (let’s say 150 mL) into without being even half full. The wine should be just under the widest portion of the bowl. This allows better aroma concentration and also permits swirling with less chance of spilling your precious vino. Over-filling a wine glass might be amusing, but it is counterproductive. If you aren’t interested in the smell of your wine, then just go ahead and use water glasses.
Wine glasses – like those wretched French bistro glasses – that are far too small (and so can barely manage any taper) are absolutely ridiculous. Even a tall water glass without a taper would be a better choice than one of those abominations.
Does size matter? To a point, yes.
White, Red, Sparkling, Sweet?
Sure, you can get glasses for all of these styles – and more! But do you really need them? I’ll get to that below.
The diameter of the rim of the glass should be large enough to allow the drinker to put their nose into the glass while getting a sip. This helps to prevent the need for tipping the head too far back or bumping your nose on the rim, while simultaneously allowing the aromas of the wine to be enjoyed while drinking.
The rim of the glass itself should be as thin as possible, which allows the wine to move better from the glass to the mouth as well as enhancing the sensory experience of the wine.
Glass or crystal glass.
A wine glass works best when it is glass (or crystal). And it should be clear, which is to say uncoloured, so as to allow the appreciation of the colour of the wine.
But why is glass or crystal better than, say, plastic, metal or ceramic? Because crystal and glass are transparent, can be made into very fine and thin-walled vessels, and are flavour-neutral (they neither impart flavours to nor take on flavours from their contents). The only disadvantage is their high breakability.
So what are the relative pros and cons of crystal glass versus regular glass?
The word “crystal” with regards to glasses is a misnomer, since the material is just glass made with more minerals and likely containing lead. “Crystal” does not have a crystalline structure, but the word “crystal” sounds better than, say, “leaded glass”. Marketing strikes again.
- more brilliant: lead content makes the glass more refractive (sparkly!), which enhances the optical appeal both of the glass itself and of its contents
- thinner glass: lead both strengthens and makes the material softer, allowing glasses made from it to be thinner
- enhances wine aroma: crystal glass is porous, making it better for revealing the aromas in your wine when swirling
- more breakable
- more expensive.
- crystal glass is not dishwasher-safe, because the material is porous
You know what it is.
- completely inert
- relatively inexpensive
- more robust
- usually dishwasher-safe
Stem or Stemless?
Whatever suits you and your drinking habits.
If you are the kind of person who normally holds their wineglass by the bowl, then why bother with a glass with a stem at all? You’ll be doing yourself a favour by losing the stem.
Nevertheless, there are both aesthetic and practical reasons for both kinds of glass. The classic, of course, is a glass with a stem. It is currently quite trendy, however, to go stemless. There are producers, like Stölzle Lausitz (maker of most of my non-specialised stemware) with glass series that have very long stems. I think that glasses look great with a longer stem, but you definitely need the right cupboards to store them, and you can forget about dishwashers – plus they are a bit more dangerous, since they can tip over more easily. Riedel, by contrast, has several glass series that have unusually short stems – and Riedel glasses generally also have a broader foot than other producers use (a feature that Maximilian Riedel has informed me is both more costly and more difficult to produce), which gives the glasses more stability.
I won’t get into the aesthetics, since that is mostly personal opinion in any case. But here are the functional pros and cons of stems and stemless glasses.
With Stem: the glass can be held by the stem (or by the base), keeping dirty fingerprints off of the bowl and not transferring your body heat to the wine. It is easier to swirl the wine in a glass with a stem. BUT, stems can break easily – particularly when drying/polishing the glass – and glasses will tip more easily – particularly if the foot of the glass is too small.
Without Stem: the glasses are more compact (easier to store), less susceptible to breakage and go far more easily into the dishwasher, should you be so inclined. BUT, the glasses will get dirty quickly from your greasy hands, and you will certainly be warming up the wine in your glass with your body heat.
Mouth-Blown or Machine-Made?
Mouth-blown, if you can afford it.
A much thinner wall (and rim) can be created with hand-made glasses, which offers less impediment to the wine when drinking. It may only feel like a tactile difference, but I believe it is an important one for the experience of the wine. A thick, heavy glass feels clumsy and reduces the enjoyment of the wine within.
See the difference in the stem? Left: Machine-Made. Right: Mouth-Blown.
Downside: mouth-blown glasses are both more expensive and far more fragile.
Having said that, there are an increasing number of very well-made glasses being done by machine. Glass is thinner, and the rim is sometimes lasered off, so as not to end up with the thick bead (which was actually specially-invented to reduce glass breakage) that typifies cheaper glasses. Some of the best machine-made glasses look as good and are nearly as enjoyable to use as their handmade counterparts, while costing far less – often less than half as much.
Rim comparison. Left: Machine-made. Right: Mouth-blown.
Etching and Beveling
Fine, if you want it, but not for me, thanks.
Many people enjoy a glass that is decoratively etched – sometimes deeply etched and beveled like those Bohemian Crystal glasses. That’s fine, if that’s your thing. Personally, I want to see the colour of the wine without it being obstructed and distorted by the glass. Besides, bevelled glasses are, by necessity, made of quite thick, heavy crystal, which may look nice and cost you a pretty penny, but which also prevents smooth movement of the wine from the bowl of the glass to the tongue, as I mentioned above.
As mentioned above, clear glass is preferable to be able to appreciate the colour and limpidity (or cloudiness, if you’re into that style) of the wine. But if you prefer a glass that’s coloured, hey, knock yourself out. Since wine itself has a colour, the combination with coloured glass can be funky.
Some producers of high-end glassware – notably Riedel – have begun producing glasses with coloured stems. I hate to say it, but the cheaper glassware companies beat them to that idea long, long ago. One of my first sets of wineglasses came from IKEA; they had black stems. At the time, I didn’t realise they were actually avant-garde.
The Advanced Stuff
Adapting the glass to the wine you are drinking
There is such a thing as a tasting glass. This is always a small glass used to taste wine – but not to drink it. The standardised glass designed by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) is used worldwide for wine tastings and also serves as the basis for spirits tasting glasses as well.
This glass has all the basic characteristics one needs in a good wine glass – except that it is, of course, far too small for a portion of wine. It is ideal, however, for a standard sample of wine. Several glassmakers even produce a “blind tasting” glass made from opaque, black glass. Good times.
Although many glass manufacturers also make a glass that they call a tasting glass, they are generally simply a smallish glass with a shorter stem than normal.
Though many companies have a “universal” glass in their lineup – usually as part of a larger series of dedicated stemware – there are a few very well-known glasses occupying this category: Zalto Denk’Art Universal (mouth-blown), Peter Steger ONE For ALL (machine-made), and Gabriel-Glas (both machine-made and mouth-blown).
Zalto has become a cult phenomenon. The glasses enjoy enormous popularity among wine professionals and aspiring professionals. The company makes but a single line of glasses, only mouth-blown, with six models for wine – but the universal glass is unquestionably very true to its intended purpose, being equally well-suited to all colours and styles.
Peter Steger’s ONE For ALL was originally just a single glass, logically. Now the company makes a smaller version and a larger version for whites and reds, respectively. They also look quite obviously based on the famous INAO tasting glass except for being larger, which makes me feel bad for the company for the amount of time and money that went into developing the design. Back when there really WAS only “one for all”, they were my first “good” wine glass purchase, and I used them a lot.
The Gabriel-Glass is the real deal. Available as a very fine mouth-blown version or machine-made, it is a single glass shape with nothing else in the product line. It IS the product line. I have both versions, and I use the mouth-blown “Gold” edition for all of my tastings. For my money, it is the best universal glass that there is. Fun bonus: the shape is also extremely close to the one popular for craft beers, should you also happen to enjoy that scene.
Universal glasses are supposed to be “just as good” for all wines – and they generally are. But the flip side to this is the fact that they are also “just as bad” for all wines. You can significantly improve your experience with the right glass, if you would like to do so.
Left: Gabriel Glass Gold Edition. Right: Zalto Denk’Art Universal Glass
This is an idea I can get on board with.
All producers used to make different wine glasses for the three major “styles” of wine: red, white and sparkling, sometimes with a sweet wine glass as well. These glasses are still largely available from all the major producers in most of their product lines, and they are generally fine.
Nowadays, it has become more popular – and useful, in my opinion – to focus less on the colour (or on the grape variety) and more on the character of the wine itself. Big and Bold wines have their glass, fine and delicate wines are better with another, aromatic wines with a third, and so on. The range of glasses is far smaller than varietal-specific options; usually there are only five or six glasses.
Most producers these days – including Riedel, it should be noted – make glasses designed more for the style of the wine than what the particular grape is. Cult producers like Zalto and Mark Thomas base their entire offering on it, heavyweights like Schott Zwiesel make several lines focusing on it instead of on grape varieties or on colour.
This makes more sense to me. But it still means buying several different glass shapes – generally, at least three – to cover your bases. It’s not for every budget or kitchen cupboard. But, if you drink a broad range of wine, it is a good way to get the most out of what you are drinking while not going too overboard with investment, or having to dedicate an entire room to glassware.
With one notable exception (Riedel‘s new “Performance” line) , I am not remotely convinced by the practice of making varietal-specific glasses.
The premise is simple: different varieties of grapes have different organoleptic properties. A different shape of bowl will accentuate or subdue different characteristics in the resulting wine, resulting in a more harmonious and enjoyable experience.
Riedel was the pioneer of such glasses, and the company currently lists several different ranges in all price classes that each include a large number of different glass shapes designed to enhance the enjoyment of various grape varieties. In practice, I, personally, have not been convinced by what I have tried – and I own most of the Sommeliers line, the flagship line of mouth-blown varietal-specific glasses made by Riedel.
Naturally, if you feel such glasses are important – and you have both the cash to buy them and the space to store them – go crazy! But imagine outfitting yourself with sufficient glasses for eight guests, for example, when the range includes 12 different glasses just for wine, costing well over €60 per glass…
Some Glassmakers to Look For
Here is a very short list of makers of good to great glassware.