Glass makes a difference to the overall experience
Suresh Kanji was dining in a newish, quite decent restaurant in Hong Kong, and ordered a bottle of quite decent red wine to go with dinner. When the glassware arrived, he changed his mind. He downgraded to the most ordinary bottle of wine on the list. Why? Kanji is the general manager of Townhouse, representative of Riedel glassware in Hong Kong, and is one who conducts the by-now legendary glass tastings, that include a 'joker' glass.
This is a crude, heavy, ugly wine glass which serves to precisely make the point about how the shape of a wine glass affects - negatively - the experience of wine drinking. The glassware in the aforementioned 'decent' restaurant was the brand he had chosen as his 'joker'.
Into the tall, elegant, unadorned Riedel glass made especially for sauvignon blanc, we pour a mid-range, quite commercial sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
The nose is quite subtle, with elderflower and gooseberry aromas, but nothing too unnecessarily grassy. On the palate, the acidity is balanced with a touch of residual sugar and some gentle, pretty flavours. There's a hint of alcohol at the back but a nice finish overall.
We sniff the wine in the 'joker' glass. Nothing at all. Perhaps, if we use our imagination, there might be something vaguely floral there - or maybe not. We sip. Whoah! All we get is harsh, out-of-balance acidity; overall a quite unpleasant sipping experience. Riedel traces its roots back to 1756, but it was in 1958 that Professor Claus Riedel discovered the simple truth - that content commands the shape.
He was convinced that virtually every glass that people were drinking from was doing insufficient justice to the wine. His son, Georg, the present president, is 10th generation, and was named Man of the Year in 1996 by Decanter magazine in Britain, for services to the wine industry.
Upon tasting his wines from Riedel glassware for the first time, industry luminary Robert Mondavi apparently proclaimed: 'I never dreamed my wines were this good!' And influential critic Robert Parker is quoted as saying that: 'The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by Riedel.'
The basic principle is that the shape of a glass is responsible for the flow of wine across the tongue, and for where it touches the various taste receptors, and for what sensations are felt around the palate as a whole.
The initial point of contact depends on the shape and volume of the glass, the diameter of the rim, and the thickness of the crystal. The proportions of the glass allow for sufficient swirling to release the appropriate aroma molecules.
At the most recent tasting he conducted in Hong Kong, Georg Riedel shocked by pouring not wine but water. The same, still, mineral, water was sipped from three glasses designed for three different red grapes - pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. No one liked the water from the syrah glass, and the room was divided between the other two.
Dare I suggest, Riedel says, that those who preferred the water from the pinot glass have a proclivity for sparkling water.
That tasting also proved that even what he calls his 'compromise' glass - the one for syrah - could handle neither pinot nor cabernet. The former smelt too woody and tasted metallic, and the latter, while showing a good blackcurrant nose, saw tannins over-accentuated and a bitterness.