Guided by the glass

George RiedelGeorg Riedel has a very sensitive palate. Drinking wine from his competitors’ glasses makes him want to vomit, he told a bunch of us at a fascinating tasting in Cape Town this week. I’m not sure who all the fascinated people were, frankly – a few wine journalists like myself, a few producers and other wine-ish people I recognised, and a lot of others who were probably from more useful media outlets than Grape.

Georg, of course, owns (or his family does) the Riedel glass company and must be extraordinarily rich, judging by the international reputation and high price of his splendid glassware. All the more reason to be grateful for him deigning to come and convince us here that the shape of a glass can make a remarkable difference to the experience of the wine in it. As horses for courses, wines for glasses.

I entered the room a mild sceptic. I do pay attention to the glasses I drink wine from, but, I have realised, not enough. Not nearly enough. I came away from Georg’s lecture-tasting fully aware that a Creation Pinot Noir can (no – it will!) taste very good, full of red fruit, from a Riedel pinot noir glass (we were using glasses from the comparatively modest Vinum XL range). It can (no – it will!) taste stalky and green from the big Bordeaux glass, and too salty and minerally and unbalanced from the glass designed for shiraz – and suitable for many other  black grapes. Tannins can only too easily bounce off all the wrong parts of the mouth; fruit gets lost in the wrong corners and misses the right receptors; the acidity – god knows what happens to the acidity, if it doesn’t have a Riedel glass to guide it to the right place.

(Forgive me, incidentally, if you’re Americanised – I still can’t quite bring myself to talk about “stemware”.)

It was a remarkable experience. We also tried a shiraz from the three glasses, and unquestionably it smelt and tasted better from the correct glass. Georg (who’s no doubt done this tasting several million times before, hoping to make the whole world vomit when they drink wine from his competitors’ glasses) had started off his tour-de-force performance by having us try neutral cold water from the three glasses, to see how the different shapes of the glasses obliged the water to flow, to hit, different parts of the mouth. He came, he commanded and reprimanded us, he demonstrated, he proved his point. (And we also had a very good lunch at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands.)

riedelglassIt’s all physics, as George says. He and his researchers and designers and glass-blowers can’t change the wine (chemistry). But, through sage Teutonic observation of the laws of gravity and the obligations of human lips and tongues and mouths and their translation into glass by clever design, the experience of wine can be radically affected, depending on which  glass we raise to our innocent lips.

Or indeed to our innocent noses. But George, who on occasion seemed just a touch contemptuous of us, his audience, was certainly on occasion lightly contemptuous of the innocence and folly of what he referred to as “my customers”. (He presumably realised that many, though not all, of his guests in Newlands were insufficiently rich to be his customers.) His customers, it seems, do not bother to sniff wine, and tend to gravitate to the prettier glasses rather than the most suitable ones. But his customers are, on the whole, rich, which is crucially important.

[Paragraph deleted – see my comment]

Expensive – for, apart from all the other costs, I must in all journalistic rigour, tell you that George’s guests each took home a very handsome freebie: the three expensive Riedel glasses that they’d been tasting from. To enable us to try more experimenting at home, and to learn to vomit when tasting from anything other than a Riedel glass. Though I have to confess that at least one of the lucky guests is something of a clumsy oaf, and, during his first eager home experiment, promptly knocked the Bordeaux glass to the floor, where it bounced once and then shattered into myriad thin slivers. Retail price: about R300 each, when bought in a pack of eight from Reciprocal, the South African importers.

But let me, abandoning vulgar ribaldry, state my sober conclusion. Riedel glasses are totally admirable. Glass shape does matter and Riedel have admirably responded to the facts that their research has revealed, with brilliant glassmaking technology. If I were very rich, I would tomorrow go out and buy loads of different glasses (not all of the Riedel stuff is available in South Africa it seems). I’m not rich (seems silly to say that in the midst of world starvation and suffering, but you know what I mean, in this context); I already have lovely Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses from the rather cheaper subsidiary of Riedel called Spiegelau, as well as other glasses from even less august producers.

Riedel glasses, wonderful as they are, are absurdly expensive – the Vinum glasses we were tasting from are not handblown (the handblown ones are round about R800 per glass, though arguably better value, in fact) – and George’s tasting didn’t begin to convince me that these industrial products were worth the premium over some much cheaper glassware. To be fair, that wasn’t what he was trying to do. What he was trying to do was to show us that the glasses we drink from will more-or-less radically influence the drinking experience. He showed us, and once you’re shown that, drinking wine can never be quite the same again.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ravishingly beautiful and occasionally bizarre decanters, or the glass designed expressly for Coca-Cola.

2 thoughts on “Guided by the glass

  1. I’ve deleted a paragraph from the article as it first appeared, not because it was rather irelevant and rather silly, but because it was misleading. I wasn’t asked to do anything in particular, but the local Riedel distributor pointed out that I’d been careless in not checking my facts. I wrote about how the Swartland Revolution had initially made use of Riedel glasses but that supply had dried up. It is clear to me now that Riedel made notable efforts to help the SR meet its greatly increased demand for glasses from the SR over the years (to a number much in excess of Riedel’s national tasting stock), but that it was not their parsimony that made the SR’s proposals impossible to accept. The details are all a bit complicated, but that’s a fair conclusion, and I shouldn’t have implied otherwise. Sorry. In fact it seems clear to me now that neither the SR organisers nor Riedel could easily afford to provide the SR with Riedel glasses – unfortunately. (If anyone is curious to see my original careless para, they’re welcome to ask me for it.)

  2. Hi Tim

    Any chance that more of these Riedel Tasting events are being held in Cape Town to your knowledge? I’d love to attend.

    I bought some of the handblown bordeaux glasses on a recent visit to Innsbruckl, Austria – they are amazingly fine – feels as though the whole glass flexes when you swirl the wine.

    My view – they’re worth it


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