Engineering a Better Glass of Booze

When drinking stuff from the cellar, the temperature controlled fridge, or the top shelf, the size of the glass matters-and shape does too. You've likely picked up a bit of this, or at least rolled your eyes at it.

Bordeaux is presented in a fat bulb with a narrow opening; bubbly arrives as a tall and slender party guest; whisky sits low to the table with a pouted upper lip. Each silhouette is designed to manipulate the liquid, influencing smell, taste, balance, and finish.

It certainly wasn't always this way. Scientists at UCLA just confirmed the discovery of the oldest complete wine production facility, dating back to 4100 B.C. It included a cup made of animal horn and a drinking bowl made of clay. It wasn't until the 14th century in Venice that function got an elevated form. Here, glass blowers and designers got together to create the clear goblet that actually allowed drinkers to see the true color of the wine. And in the 18th century, matching sets of glasses came into style when formal dining rooms did. But the sets didn't do anything special regarding taste; the glasses expanded progressively outward from the bowl, regardless of drink.

Enter Claus Josef Riedel. After WWII, Riedel, backed by the Swarovskis, was the first to piece together a unique glass shape for individual varietals of wine, differentiating what happens when you open a Cab from, say, a Chardonnay. See, time in the bottle develops the flavor, or what's called a "reductive bouquet." When the cork is pulled and the wine meets the air, rapid equilibrium changes occur between gaseous, dissolved, and weakly bound states of wine aromatics, which trigger the scent.

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Let's take the example of the Bordeaux glass. That wide bowl exposes more of a wine's surface to the air, persuading the liquid to "open up" at a more rapid rate. (When anger—something else that runs red—is bottled up, it also benefits from some airing out.) The lip helps corral the aromas within the glass, keeping the wine's smell available for the sniffer. The bulb to lip taper, exaggerated in the Burgundy glass, helps direct the liquid to taste buds at the front of the mouth, an area better tuned to the sweet red fruit flavors and minerals present in the juice.

Slim a glass's girth and liquid is sent to the tip of the tongue, which best suits crisp whites like Sauvignon Blanc. These wines don't require the same breathing room, so the glass can be thinner overall, with less of the liquid's surface exposed to the air. But add vanilla, an element of many Chardonnays, and the white needs a fatter vessel, which we'll get to in a moment.

Because each glass practices a kind of liquid manipulation, a mismatched pair can go really wrong. Take, for instance, the case of the Chardonnay in a Riesling glass, which has a classic white wine glass shape. Because both are whites, we tend to pour them in the same holder. But, says Claus' grandson Maximilian Riedel, "drinking Chardonnay from the Riesling glass dilutes the Chardonnay's fruit, bringing forward far too much vanilla." The best bet for Chardonnay is a bigger bulb, which exposes more of the liquid to the air and avoids the intense smell shot.

Bubbly, too, might need a little glass design revamp. Maximilian prefers his Champagne dressed in a Pinot Noir glass (a fatter glass than even the Bordeaux). The reason, he says, is that "Pinot Noir is usually the dominant grape in Champagne blends."

Oooh, try this fun hair-singeing experiment: Stick your nose in a champagne flute full of Jameson. With spirits that run at 40 percent alcohol and up, the booze can hit hard before it even reaches the mouth. That's why the whisky glass is designed to spill its scent. Since smell and taste are so intimately connected, a stronger olfactory appearance also means a stronger tasting shot. The glass is squat on purpose: Single malt makers say mixers are a no no, so the glass's diminutive frame is designed to guard against them.

Overwhelmed yet? The good news is: For Two-Buck Chuck, none of this really matters. Drink it from a mug if you want to; glass shape will not push a mediocre wine to greatness. But when you splurge on the good stuff, get a glass that will show off its most impressive attributes.

Original artwork by Christopher Hartelius. For more of Chris's work and other true news stories, please check out his website TrueAmericanDog.com.

Glassware images courtesy Riedel.