Discerning the Complexity of a Riedel Wine Glass
Be prepared to disbelieve. Skeptics unite! Do you believe that the wrong wine glass can make a great wine mediocre? Or that a great wine glass can make a mediocre wine rise up and show itself in its best light? Can this possibly be true? Sure, a smelly glass can hurt a wine's aroma. A dingy glass can make it harder to judge the clarity. Still, can the shape of the glass and the way they make it bring about a substantial difference in the experience of wine? Many people seem to think so. Riedel Glas, an Austrian glass maker, is staking its future on it. Nevertheless, it sounds a little far-fetched -- too finicky. A few lucky Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival attendees can judge for themselves Friday, April 7, when Jozef Tomicheck of Riedel and John Roenigk of the Austin Wine Merchant will lead a tasting comparing Riedel glasses with other brands using the same wines. I can't wait to see for myself. Apparently a lot of other people feel the same way: All 75 seats at the event were sold out over a month ago. When the Wine and Food Festival added a second tasting, it also completely sold out. Johann Christoph Riedel started making fine glassware in 1756. The company has made everything from thick-cut crystal goblets to the red, yellow, and green lenses for traffic lights. When the Nazis took over Bohemia during World War II, they also took over the Riedel factory. After the Nazis left, the Communists took it over and nationalized the Riedel family's holdings. They restarted the company in Austria. Soon, the likes of Winston Churchill and the Duchess of Windsor were extolling the virtues of Riedel stemware. Rather than thick, heavy-cut crystal, the glassmakers decided to follow the Bauhaus dictum that form should follow function and make delicate, light wine glasses. Georg Riedel, 51-year-old owner of the company, decided in the mid-1970s that the future for his company was in designing a new system of fine wine glasses. His idea was revolutionary: The size and shape of the glass dramatically affect the way wine tastes. The only problem was that no one believed him.
Enter Angelo Gaja, one of Italy's most famous winemakers. His wines are brutally expensive and still sell out almost immediately. In his home country, he is treated like a rock star. Somehow, Riedel convinced Gaja that the glasses really did make a difference. Apparently, Gaja perceived the transformation immediately. Robert Mondavi, patriarch of the U.S. wine scene, didn't see it that way at all. The story goes like this: Georg wrangles his way in to meet Mondavi and tells him that his glasses will make Mondavi's wines taste better. Mondavi listens politely for a while, but eventually tells Riedel that he is preaching nonsense and dismisses him. Months later, Gaja talks to his friend Mondavi and convinces him to bring the family to a private demonstration. Mondavi, his wife, and two sons come but feel like they are wasting their time and are not too happy about it. They go so far as to claim Riedel is "nuts." Based on Gaja's cajoling, they stay. Riedel brings out four of his glasses and four glasses from the Mondavi's tasting room. They taste Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon in both the dedicated Riedel glass and the Mondavi tasting room glass. At the end, Mondavi calls his office and tells them to trash all of the thousands of glasses used in the tasting room and elsewhere in his wine empire. Replace them with Riedel glasses. He wants his wine, even down to his budget label, Woodbridge, tasted in Riedel glasses because he believes they show the wine at its absolute best. Eventually, Georg found other believers. Many wine connoisseurs have come to consider Riedel's glasses as tools necessary for proper understanding of the wine they are drinking, not luxury items. His firm now sells more than five million glasses per year, including the Sommelier glasses at $50-80 per stem, the Vinum series at $15-25 per stem, and the Overture glasses for $8-14 per stem.
How do they work? Some of these glasses are huge. Their Sommelier Burgundy glass ($75 per glass) can hold more than a quart of liquid. Yet they only recommend pouring about four ounces. The goal is to expose the wine to a lot of air to help release its bouquet. Thus, the bowls are large in circumference. They are also tall. Riedel believes that the aroma perception is distorted in most glasses. It has to do with the specific gravity of the vapors. When you pour wine into a glass, it immediately starts evaporating. The theory is that the lightest and highest vapors are the fruit and flower aromas. Next down are the vegetal and mineral smells, with the wood and alcohol smells sitting at the bottom, right next to the wine. In their view of the world, a very large glass allows you slowly to sniff each individual layer. The artisans who make these glasses apprentice for 10 years before they are ever allowed to make a single glass for the marketplace. Glass blowers are allowed a margin of error of one millimeter -- beyond that the glass goes in the trash.
Riedel also believes that the first taste impression is a lasting one. The size and the shape of the glass cause you to position your head in a specific way as you are drinking. That, combined with the shape of the rim, leads the wine to strike your tongue at a specific site when you drink.
Since the tongue has distinct zones that perceive sweet, acid, salt, and bitterness, any ability to focus the wine on one of those areas will emphasize that taste. Conversely, one of the reasons people swirl wine in their mouth is to minimize exactly what Riedel is trying to accomplish. Maybe Riedel is trying to be a little too controlling of the experience, which, after all, is meant to be one of pleasure and relaxation. Still, the picture of Mondavi telling his staff to banish all other wine glasses from his tasting rooms is enduring.
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