Why is Wine Almost Always Drunk in Wine Glasses Instead of Regular Glasses?
For a lot of people, a nice glass of wine is used to enhance enjoyment of things like the four F’s that make life worth living- friends, family, food, and… one other thing… Regardless of when or where you’re drinking that wine, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be drinking it out of a type of container so associated with wine it is literally colloquially known as a “wine glass”. To drink such grape juice out of anything else would likely see even non-drinkers slowly distancing themselves from you for fear of your particular brand of crazy. In fact, beyond it being a societal must to imbibe grapes’ juicy innards from such a glass, the most knowledgeable of wine connoisseurs generally insist that for maximal enjoyment, wines must further be matched with specific types of wine glass. But does this actually make a difference? And how did the modern wine glass come to be anyway?
To begin with, wine pre-dates humans making glass by at least a few thousand years and probably much more, with the earliest archeological evidence of wine making dating back to around 9,000 years ago. In comparison, humans didn’t start making glass more complicated than beads until around 4,000-5,000 years ago. Containers of choice for the earliest of wine drinkers are thought to have been things like bamboo, shells, gourds, animal horns and skins, etc.
Moving on to the earliest known references to wine glasses, these were various opaque glass containers used in religious ceremonies and beyond, such as one known as the Roman patella cup- so named in modern times for its resemblance to the human kneecap.
With advancements in glass making, particularly relatively transparent glass around 800 BC and then mold-blowing around 50 AD in Rome, glass cups slowly began to become more and more popular among those who could afford them. The most affluent also went beyond glass to even sometimes jewel encrusted gold and silver goblets for their wine containers of choice. As for the riff-raff, for most of more modern history they used things like containers made of clay, wood, or leather for their imbibing.
Fast-forward to the 15th century and things started to get a little more interesting thanks to Cristallo glass, though only the exceptionally wealthy could afford it. Beyond its rarity, the value of Cristallo glass was largely tied to how clear this glass is, combined with its light refractive qualities which were particularly enhanced when viewed via the flickering flames of candles and lanterns.
Moving swiftly on to 1673 one George Ravenscroft figured out how to achieve the same basic effect using flint (and later sand) and lead oxide. While not the first to do this, he was the first to industrialize it, as well as ultimately popularize his method, beginning in Britain and then throughout the world. Once his patent expired just 15 years later, this leaded glass began finding its way into the chandeliers and glassware of the slightly less obscenely wealthy, thanks to being made from more commonly available materials than Cristallo glass and how much easier leaded glass is to work with.
It was also around this point that the stem on the wine glasses began being elongated significantly, more akin to what was seen on some metal goblets of the age, particularly those used in religious ceremonies. It is speculated that this change to the glassware was, much like in religious ceremonies and with particularly bejeweled cups before, to better display the main part of the vessel, in this case in all its prismatic glory.
Beyond surviving glassware, as an example of the shorter stems more common before this, we have the 1660 painting The Wine Glass by Johannes Vermeer. If you look closely at this painting, you’ll also note in this and other examples from the era that the inward rim of wine glasses of today was not a thing back then. In fact, this would not become popular until around the mid-20th century, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
Another thing worth mentioning in the evolution of the wine glass is that, starting around the 19th century and accelerating rapidly in the late 20th century, the size of a typical wine glass has progressively been getting bigger and bigger, while simultaneously the glass itself has gotten thinner and thinner.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that over the course of the bulk of the evolution of the wine glass to something very similar to what we have today, seemingly at no point was enhancement of the flavor of the wine a consideration in the design elements. It was all about aesthetics. This changed in the 20th century.
As the century progressed, the idea that the wine glass itself was integral to the perceived flavor of the wine started gaining steam popularly, though not without its detractors. For example, the creator of the famed Good Food Guide and author of the 1951 Plain Man’s Guide to Wine, noted gourmet Raymond Postgate, outlines the then common five different wine glass types, followed by stating that, despite growing popularity of the notion, “not one of them improves the wine in any way at all.” He further states that, in his opinion, in some cases certain of these glasses were just used by unscrupulous restaurant owners to make it appear as if you were getting more drink than you actually were.
It wouldn’t be until about two decades after Postgate wrote those words that the wine drinking world would be seemingly forever changed thanks to Bohemian glassmaker Claus Riedel of the aptly named Riedel Crystal company. Fighting in the German Army during WWII, Reidel was ultimately captured and made a POW. While being transferred back to his home country after the war, he decided to quite literally jump from the train he was on as it was traveling through Austria. About a decade later, he and his father decided in 1955 to restart the family glass making business- one that had previously been operated by 9 generations of his ancestors, going all the way back to 1756.
Almost two decades later, seeking a way to bolster sales, Riedel struck upon a rather ingenious idea- create a new line of glassware with each design meant to be suited for different types of wines. This would not only bolster sales from potentially many designs being sold per customer, but also would see his company, at least at first, being the only one that made these supposedly wine enhancing designs.
Using the tongue taste map for partial inspiration for many of his designs, as well as enlisting the aid of various sommeliers, he began introducing his new glasses in the early 1970s. These various shapes were meant to affect both the aroma and how the liquid was ultimately funneled onto the tongue, with the promise being that if you matched the wine to the wine glass, you’d get the best possible flavor out of a given type of wine.
People bought it- literally, with sales of his designs skyrocketing and soon in demand throughout Europe, and by the 1970s and 1980s spreading throughout the United States.
Of course, the whole tongue taste map idea isn’t actually a thing at all, which should be abundantly clear to anyone who has ever tasted pretty much anything, ever. As noted taste and smell expert Dr. Linda Bartoshuk of Yale aptly stated in 2004 with regards to Riedel’s work, “Your brain doesn’t care where taste is coming from in your mouth, and researchers have known this for thirty years.”
Nevertheless, in the decades since Riedel’s work, the idea that different wine glasses actually affect flavor has become an almost universally supported notion by sommeliers, with various pairings suggested by Riedel likewise being popular. So firmly entrenched is this notion that there is even an international standard for wine glasses used for taste testing to make sure everyone is drinking out of the same types of glasses, both in design and composition, for a given test.
But is there any actual evidence to support this idea?
Well, if we’re talking scientifically rigorous studies, no, not really. But, it turns, beyond the word of the people who dedicate their lives to wine, there is some reason to think drinking wine out of a wine glass does make a difference in flavor. Why?
To begin with, as demonstrated in a 2015 study in Japan, A sniffer-camera for imaging of ethanol vaporization from wine: the effect of wine glass shape, different wine glass shapes and temperatures do indeed show different vapor patterns and vapor densities for their contents around the surface of the glass where you sip from. As smell plays a large role in how we perceive something tastes, particularly in something like wine which is relatively aromatic, and the different vapor patterns will mildly affect the smell, it seems a pretty reasonable hypothesis that the flavor will be affected subtly from this.
That said, just because something might subtly change a flavor of something, doesn’t mean a given person will notice at all in a given setting, let alone whether the person will think that change is a good thing given their particular palate.
On a similar note, while the tongue taste zone thing is a myth, the flow rate and how much of the tongue is covered by the wine on initial contact will also subtly affect the overall perceived flavor as can be attested by anyone who has ever drunk anything- guzzling vs sipping makes a difference. But, again, your mileage may vary and whether you think this very subtle change is a good or bad thing, or whether you even notice at all.
Next up, the temperature of wine makes an even bigger difference in flavor, in part for vaporistic reasons. Thus, it’s often claimed that drinking wine from a stemmed wine glass, rather than a more versatile cup, is beneficial as it keeps your grubby, warm fingers further away from the wine. However, color us extremely skeptical that this one is going to make much of a noticeable difference in many scenarios people drink wine in, despite it often cited as one of the top reasons wine must be drunk in wine glasses. We’re hypothesizing that it’s only consistently listed as one of the top reasons in reality because it is the most notable difference between wine glasses and many other types of glasses.
For example, if you’re sipping wine on a beach in Florida in the summer, odds are pretty strong where you’re holding the glass isn’t going to make one iota of noticeable difference. Further, while temperature does affect the evaporation rates and thus aroma, if you’re just briefly picking up your glass and then setting it back down after taking a sip, the ambient temperature, whether hot, cold, or somewhere in between, is once again going to strongly dominate.
Hold the wine by the bowl for extended periods, however, and it will affect the temperature somewhat, but whether you’ll notice or not depends on a number of outside factors to the point that we’re guessing even the greatest of sommeliers aren’t going to be able to tell much of a difference in a huge number of real world scenarios. Thus, we’re going to need some scientifically rigorous studies before we buy that the majority of the population would notice a difference between holding the bowl vs. holding the stem in the vast majority of scenarios.
This brings us to the real largest reason drinking wine in wine glasses probably enhances most people’s enjoyment of consuming wine. It turns out how our minds perceive flavor isn’t just about taste-buds and smells, but rather the environment we’re currently in and our preconceived notions, to the point that study after study has shown that with the right suggestion it’s even not difficult to convince people they are drinking or eating something completely different than they actually are in blind taste tests.
Or for more subtle effects, for example, studies have shown that if someone is drinking whiskey in a room with a lot of wood decor, or in the extreme like a log cabin, people will rate said whiskey as having a woody flavor. Take those same people and place them outside on a sunshiny day with the exact same whiskey, and they’ll use completely different adjectives to describe the flavor. It’s even been found that changing just the lighting or color of the container holding the thing to be consumed will change people’s perception of the taste.
In yet another study looking into this fascinating relatively new field, subjects were given a strawberry dessert on two plates, one pink and one black. When the dessert was consumed from the pink plate, it was rated as tasting markedly sweeter than the same exact dessert placed on the black plate.
Researchers in this field are even starting to narrow down types of music that change our perception of taste. For the curious, while large samplesize studies still need conducted, the research so far indicates high pitch piano or flute music is associated with an increase in sweetness of the flavor of something, while heavy bass is associated with an increase in bitterness. Naturally, certain companies like Starbucks, Nestle, and many major restaurant chains have in recent years been throwing money at neurogastronomists to try to find music playlists and container types that make their wares taste better to people while also creating an otherwise suitable ambiance for a particular establishment.
As Perception Physiologists (which is totally a job title by the way) Johannes Le Coutre at Nestle states, “We are beginning to learn about these things. We don’t know necessarily what will come out at that end, but clearly contextual perception is a big opportunity.”
Thus, much like our historic forbears, it’s generally thought aesthetics of the glasses themselves is affecting our perception of taste, in this case seemingly universally in a positive way.
Thus, despite lack of any direct studies into the matter, all of this combined has resulted in most wine connoisseurs equating drinking wine out of anything but a suitable wine glass akin to, to quote the author of How to Drink, Victoria Moore, “like buying a state-of-the-art sound system and fitting it to cheap speakers.”
That said, there still exists certain levels of holdouts among the wine experts of the world. For example, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson from the Oxford Companion to Wine state that while more refined palates can tell a difference in flavor when using different glasses, in their opinion, most people can’t.
Backing up that it doesn’t make enough of a difference to be bothered with is how various major restaurant chains have chosen to deal with the matter. For example, Restaurant Manager of the Four Seasons in Hampshire, Andrea Bravi, states, “It was once common practice in Four Seasons hotel restaurants to serve each wine in a different shape vessel. Today… [we] find that a Bordeaux glass is a great style for most complex red structures; and a Montrachet/Chardonnay for whites.”
So to conclude, while there is no hard scientific proof that drinking wine out of some form of wine glass actually makes a significant difference in flavor, there is enough ancillary evidence to support the hypothesis that there may be something to this. However, assuming this is true, it’s not actually clear that a given individual will notice the change, and even if they do, if they’ll think the flavor change is a good thing or a bad thing in a given instance- everybody has their own unique palate. Like so many things with wine, while there are a whole lot of experts who will insist this or that is the “best” way to enjoy a given wine, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll agree, or even notice a difference at all. You like what you like, and if you want to drink Chateau Cheval Blanc 1943 out of a coffee mug that says “World’s #1 Ol’ Fart” because that’s the way you enjoy it best, you should. And, hey, if your thing is to have a specialized glass made of the finest crystal for each and every different type of wine you drink because that enhances your enjoyment, more power to you too. In either case, nobody has the right to make you feel lesser for enjoying the little things in life the way you like.
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