An 11th generation wineglass-maker demonstrates his craft in Carmel.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
We’ve all seen the distinctive Riedel trademark in our favorite high-end restaurant, at the fancy tasting room, and, to our dismay, on cousin Julie’s bridal registry. We’ve also heard the hype that these relatively expensive glasses actually make wine taste better and thought, “Come on… ”
That same skepticism in hand, I attended last month’s comparative stemware tasting at La Playa Hotel in Carmel, led by none other than Maximilian Riedel, CEO of Riedel Crystal USA and an 11th generation member of the Austrian dynasty that has hand-crafted glassworks since 1756. In his first visit to our wine region, he addressed media and industry guests prior to the annual Monterey Trade Tasting.
Max’s grandfather, Claus Riedel, first introduced the concept that the size and shape of a glass influenced one’s perception of wine. Through trial and error, with the help of winemakers and connoisseurs, he designed the first series of varietal-specific stemware to widespread acclaim.
The “science” behind the designs is derived from two assertions. First (and generally accepted) is that flavor is the composite sensation of taste and aroma. Consequently, the glass should showcase the pleasing aromas of the varietal. A smaller bowl and narrower opening accentuate the lighter, fruit and flower bouquets of white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Red wines like Pinot Noir and Cabernet require large bowls to release less volatile aromas by swirling, and wider rims to allow one’s nose to access the deeper wood, alcohol and earthy notes.
The second assertion, widely disputed, is that the tongue has four distinct areas of taste sensitivity – sweet, salty, bitter and sour – and our impressions of wine are dictated by which receptors are initially stimulated. Glasses for highly acidic wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are designed to make the wine exit the glass in a more pointed shape, directing the wine over the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is primarily perceived, thus highlighting the fruit and mellowing the acidity. Riedel’s stemware for full-bodied red wines like Cabernet and Syrah are designed for a rounded flow into the mouth, stimulating the middle and sides of the tongue where the wines’ minerality and tannins can be perceived in balance with the fruit component. (To see the effect of bowl shape on the way wine enters the mouth, simply tip a glass away from you, almost to the point of spilling, and examine the shape of the wine at the rim.)
High Five: A handful of highlights from the Monterey Trade Tasting.
Each year Monterey County vitners gather to present their wines to media and trade; this May, 27 different wineries shared their wares. Here the Weekly assembles snippets from the intriguing afternoon of sampling.
1. Ludwig Winery Single Vineyard Rieslings are appealing and revealing – despite being grown from the same clone, the Sweetwater Vineyard high on the hill and Lorelei’s Vineyard on the valley floor produce surprisingly different wines.
2. J. Lohr is now making Pinot Noir. The Fog’s Reach Vineyard Pinot from Arroyo Seco is worth checking out.
3. Pessagno’s 2006 Four Boys is still one of the very best of the county’s Pinot Noirs – get some while it lasts.
4. Galante’s Carmel Valley vineyards are yielding pretty decent Cabernets, not to mention a tasty Sauvignon Blanc.
5. It’s safe to say the Manzoni brothers are producing some of the area’s best-value estate wines.
Whether or not certain shapes better express a particular varietal, however, was about to be determined. Riedel guided our tasting through various varietals in the preferred Riedel stem, side-by-side with the international standards organization (ISO) wine-tasting glass, a plastic tumbler, and even Riedel glasses designed for other varietals. Many agreed that a wine’s character is more accurately displayed in the correct glass. I would have chalked up Riedel’s claim to slick marketing had I not tasted the difference myself.
Or did I? Wine enjoyment is inherently subjective, open to our biases on the wine’s reputation and price point as well as the people, environment and occasion of the experience. And let’s face it, wine loves a good story and a pretty glass.
Does this mean you should run out and buy seven different Riedel glasses? Unless you operate a restaurant or tasting room (or have unlimited funds and cabinet space), you’ll do fine with two different styles, a smaller one for lighter whites and a larger design for full-bodied whites and reds. And if you have a favorite varietal, why not treat yourself to a pair of the appropriate stems and experiment? Your wine will no doubt be happier in a pretty glass fine-tuned to maximize its enjoyment, and whether you subscribe to Riedel’s theories or not, you will too. End of story.