Austrian glass manufacturer Georg Riedel recently toured Australia touting his wares. Georg would have us believe a glass is not simply a convenient vessel for moving wine from bottle to lip.
He claims glasses from his Kufstein factory are purpose built to transport the subleties and highlights of specific wines and spirits to the drinkers nose and palate.
In an article in Wine & Spirit International, we’re told that Georg’s father, Professor Claus Josef Riedel, in 1970 turned his back on aesthetics to concentrate on functional wine glasses. His family had been engaged in the glassware trade for two centuries, first in Bohemia and now in Austria.
Professor Riedel believed that a wine’s first contact with one of the tongue’s four taste zones (sweet, bitter, salt, and acid) was generally the most influential factor in the drinker’s perception of its taste.
And given that the nose detects a far bigger and more subtle array of charactersitics than the tongue, glasses had to capture as much aroma as possible.
Regarding this latter attribute, Professor Riedel was not the first to observe how dramatically better big glasses are than small ones. Perhaps he’s taken this further than anyone else, though, with a special Bordeaux glass capable of holding about one litre of wine.
It sounds more like a goldfish bowl than a wine glass and you can imagine what a twit you’d look using one in public (perhaps even heroic at Canberra’s wine and food frolic).
I remember ecountering outsize glasses at restaurant Gener Nev in Asti, Italy. There we revelled in the perfume of a 1978 Barolo served in tiny splashes in huge bowls. But it was a great wine and may well have been just as impressive in standard tasting glasses.
If Riedel is not unique in the immensity of his glasses, he is, I believe in claiming to shape each model to tip wine precisely on the right part of the tongue to maximise the best features of a specific wine.
For example both his riesling and pinot noir glass have an outwardly curved lip (Prof’s son Georg calls it a spoiler) directing wine to the tip of the tongue “highlighting fruit and sweetness and balancing the natural acidity of these grape varieties.”
But for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the design pushes wine to the middle of the tongue balancing fruit and acidity.
Do the glasses really work? Wine & Spirit quotes American wine guru Robert M. Parker, “All of this may sound absurdly high-brow or esoteric, but the effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasise enough what a difference they make.”
And the magazine also cites a tasting in New York attended by some of the world’s best palates, including our own Len Evans, concluding that the lowest-rated wine in the highest-rated glass outperformed the highest rated wine in the lowest-rated glass.
That, of course, is absurd. Does Mr Riedel really expect us to believe his glasses are more important than the wine we drink? Believing glass size and shape is crucial to delivering aroma is not unreasonable. But to assert that it can be infinitely fine-tuned to best suit every wine on earth — indeed to trasform humble wine to great — stretches credibility.
Whether or not the glasses really work as claimed, Professor Riedel’s venture has been a remarkable success commercially. The factory now employs 300 people and turns over fifteen million pound sterling a year.
With all those mouths to feed, little wonder he travels the world with his velvet-lined sample case mesmerising a breathless wine press.
The success is a measure of just how wide and deep the wine culture has spread in the last twenty years. And perhaps illustrates the pretension that sometimes accompanies it.
Georg has developed, as well, Cognac glasses in conjunction with Hennessy and there are whisky glasses (with Campbell distillers) and grappa glasses (with Nonino) in the pipeline. In all these he seeks to highlight the subtle fruits hidden under masses of spirit.
For all the publicity Mr Riedel attracted, I don’t think one sensible, sceptical phrase has been written in the Australian press. Let’s give one sceptic, wine merchant David Farmer,the final say, “I have recently been experimenting with a goldfish bowl as the ultimate taster. I wonder when these tastings are set up if anyone wonders whether viewing the glasses and knowing what is being promoted as the best glass effects the result. I recall Uri Geller being able to bend spoons with thought waves.”