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 effect 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 effect 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 pallet. 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 effect 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 effecting 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 pallets 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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