Named after the father of the Washington wine industry, the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser seeks to engage both wine consumers and those within the industry through education and events. Nearly every weekend they offer classes in blind tasting, Washington versus other wine regions, and even cooking. They’ve also partnered with Austrian glassmaker Riedel, facilitating seminars on how varietal-specific glassware affects wine tasting. I’ll admit, I was skeptical as it seemed like a conflict of interest to have a glassware company leading the “why you should buy our glassware” seminar, but after testing it out for myself, I am convinced that proper glassware really does make a positive difference.
Riedel is a family-owned company that has been in the glass business for more than 250 years, making everything from windows to coat buttons to computer screens. In the 1950s, ninth-generation owner Claus Riedel turned his passion for wine into another Riedel product—the wineglass. He experimented with shapes, sizes and materials that would make a difference in a consumer’s wine experience. The first official sommelier glasses were hand-blown in Kufstein, Austria. It wasn’t until tenth-generation owner Georg Riedel took over that the first machine-made, varietal-specific glasses were produced.
Though Riedel offers dozens of different products, its Veritas line of varietal-specific glasses currently consists of 13 styles. We sampled Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet using the Veritas Red Wine Tasting Set. Visually, the first noticeable attribute are the bowl shapes and sizes—the New World Pinot Noir glass balloons out at the bottom and contains a flared-out or tulip rim, the Old World Syrah glass appears nearly balanced from top to bottom with its widest point located near the middle of the bowl, and the Cabernet/Merlot glass has a lower center of gravity with sides coming up just shy of vertical after the widest part of the bowl. All the glasses have cut rims as opposed to the rolled rim of most inexpensive stemware. The purpose of the cut rim is to deliver the wine to your palate without impediment—the roll acts like a barrier and leads to an imprecise tasting experience.
We smelled and tasted three red wines in each glass, comparing how they performed in the varietal-specific glass and the other two options. The differences were surprisingly easy to quantify. Starting with plain water, the Pinot Noir glass delivered the water to the front of the palate, thanks to the tulip-shaped rim, while the Syrah glass directed the water to the middle and back of the palate. The shape of the Cabernet/Merlot glass actually made the water feel creamy and flooded the palate evenly.
With the water test complete, we poured a small amount of Pinot Noir into each glass, gave it a swirl and stuffed our noses into the bowls. From the varietal-specific glass, the wine expressed a delicate bouquet of red fruit and a hint of spice compared to a lighter, greener aroma from the Syrah glass and almost nothing from the Cabernet glass. The varietal-specific glass delivered the Pinot Noir to the front of the palate, playing up the wine’s sweeter fruit notes of cherry and raspberry continuing to the sides of the palate, where we experienced a rush of acidity. The Syrah glass delivery completely bypassed the front of the palate, making the fruit notes harder to identify and the alcohol more pronounced on the throat. But the Cabernet glass was the worst, transforming this lush, delicate Pinot Noir into a rough-tasting wine with a terrible finish.
We repeated the experiment with a Syrah poured in each glass. In the varietal-specific glass, the wine expressed full, luscious black fruit and robust spice aromas, followed by a mid-palate hit of leather, defined structure and a lingering finish. In the Pinot Noir glass, the wine smelled herbaceous and the alcohol was highly pronounced; the glass delivered the wine too far forward on the palate and the tannins seared with unbalanced clumsiness. What seemed lush in its proper glass felt dusty, bitter, and sour in the Cabernet glass.
North America’s love affair with Bordeaux-style wines has made the Cabernet/Merlot–shaped glass the most popular style, which is why most of us would recognize it as the quintessential wineglass. We poured a Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon into each glass for the final experiment. Its bouquet was powerful with blackberry, chocolate and spice in the varietal-specific glass. The wine flooded the whole palate in a balanced manner without the tannic overload experienced from both the Pinot Noir and Syrah glasses, where flavors were tight and muted.
Even though the glasses are varietal specific, they actually can be used for more than just one type of grape. The New World Pinot Noir glass is also recommended for Nebbiolo, rosé champagne, Barolo and Barbaresco. When in doubt, use this glass for sparkling wines instead of a champagne flute to better manage the effervescence. The Old World Syrah glass can be used for any Rhone-style red as well as Barbera, Sangiovese, and Amarone wines. Stick with Bordeaux varietals with the Cabernet/Merlot glass. Of course, Riedel also makes glasses for white wines, differentiating between oaked and unoaked chardonnay, with options for beer and spirits as well. Riedel glasses (which, incidentally are dishwasher-safe) are available in tasting sets and single-varietal sets online and in stores such as Total Wine.