Selecting the right glass is one of those tasks that wine lovers take very seriously indeed while the rest of the world looks on with bemusement. Even within wine circles, it’s a polarising subject. The old-established Austrian glass manufacturer Riedel, for example, makes hundreds of different glasses for different grapes – there are several options for Pinot Noir alone, depending on where it comes from. But there’s been a backlash against such profligacy, with most wine drinkers concluding that life’s too short (and houses too small) to keep different glasses for old world and new world Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and five different regional renderings of Pinot.
Jancis Robinson, who launched her range of glassware with the designer Richard Brendon in 2018, insists you need only one glass for all wines. Swiss producer Gabriel is of the same mind. But most wine drinkers tend to favour a different glass at least for red and white wines, and our tasting appears to bear that approach out: some glasses (notably the Jancis Robinson-Richard Brendon) showed one colour better than the other.
Nonetheless, our aim in this undertaking was to find the best single go-to glass to serve all purposes. To that end, we asked the manufacturers to send us whichever model they considered their best “all-round” glass. Some found this easy, others less so. Riedel, for example, said that its Syrah/Shiraz glass is the “nearest we have to an all-rounder”, but also sent its Champagne glass, which it often suggests to restaurants as a good versatile option. As we felt the Syrah/Shiraz glass was just too big for white wines, we decided to include the Champagne glass as the nearest in shape and size to our other samples. In a similar way, producers had all been encouraged to send their top-of-the-range glasses to ensure as level a playing field as possible. But there were outliers. The Eisch Sensisplus Bordeaux and the Speigelau are machine-made and so considerably heavier than their hand-blown counterparts. The Eisch fell down more on shape (we felt all the wines were dulled by its wide mouth and large bowl) than weight; the Spiegelau, unpretentious, workaday and practical, worked very well – but both were outshone in this quality line-up.
We tested the glasses on four criteria: practicality (how robust are they, for example?); appearance, feel and balance; how they showed off a wine’s aroma; and how they showed off its palate. Each glass was tested with the four wines listed below. On the question of practicality, all the manufacturers pride themselves on the fact that their glasses are dishwasher-proof. However, they are delicate; the Spiegelau scored top marks for practicality on the basis that it looks and feels unbreakable, even when washing up after a very good party; the Zalto, however, snapped off at the stem mid-clean.
Exercises of this sort often end up as a battle of the titans – Zalto and Gabriel. The former is the chosen glass of most top UK sommeliers (it’s the house glass of London wine-themed members’ club 67 Pall Mall for example); the latter is favoured by US sommeliers. There’s no love lost between the two manufacturers (Zalto aficionadoes mutter darkly that Gabriel is a mere knock-off of their favourite). Both are exquisite artefacts, lovely to handle and to hold, but the slightly plumper bowl of the Gabriel seems to pool and channel the aromas slightly better than the straight-sided Zalto. Anyone interested in the possibilities of this shape should try Riedel’s new “Wine Wings” range (not part of our test). The glasses are ungainly and too big to be practical, but they seem to have an extraordinary effect on aroma.
There were some surprises. We were astonished by how important a glass is in delivering not only the early palate but the length as well. The Jancis Robinson glass, for example, allowed the Martin Codax Albariño to show remarkable length.
This is necessarily a very subjective exercise, but drinks consultant and former senior buyer at Berry Bros Matt Smith and I agreed on 90 per cent of our findings and had no difficulty in finding consensus. The most important conclusion we came to is that shape matters: it’s essential that the wine is given space to breathe in the glass and that the aromas are channelled effortlessly towards the nose and palate. Too wide a mouth and the aromas are lost. The perfect shape seems to be the slightly “plumped” bowl of the Gabriel and Zwiesel. Straight-sided glasses such as Zalto, Jancis Robinson and Nude lose nuance in aroma delivery, especially when it came to dry whites. With red wines, shape can be more important than size. While the Nude glass simply didn’t have the depth to bring out red wine aromas, that was more the fault of its straight up-and-down shape; the round-bellied Riedel Champagne Wine Glass isn’t much bigger than the Nude, but its shape accentuated the red wines better.
The best of these glasses worked with the wine as a conductor works with an orchestra, or a music producer at a mixing desk. They highlighted the notes that needed to be brought forward and muted the lesser notes – and they did it subtly, allowing the wine to be shown in all its multifarious complexity, without shouting for attention themselves.
Dourthe, Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux 2019
Martin Codax, Albariño, Rias Baixas 2019
Louis Latour, Marsannay, Burgundy 2018
Cune Imperial Reserva, Rioja 2016
Each glass was given a maximum of 40 points divided as follows:
Practicality: maximum 10 points
Appearance/feel/balance: maximum 10 points
Nose and palate: each glass was given a mark out of 10 for both criteria against each of the four wines; these scores were then aggregated
The tasting was carried out non-blind on Friday 9 October 2020 by Adam Lechmere and Matt Smith, drinks consultant and former Berry Bros & Rudd senior buyer
Seemingly spun from some crystalline gossamer, the top-of-the-range Gabriel is of a helium lightness, the elegantly waisted, paper-thin bowl floating on a match-thin stem. But the bowl plumply bottoms out: for all its delicacy it looks robustly functional, and despite weighing little more than a cobweb it has an artisanal heft in the hand. This is a very, very nice glass, developed by the Swiss wine writer René Gabriel with the claim that it works for all wines, “red, white, sparkling and dessert”. It certainly worked on the reds, the Burgundy rising out of the glass with a blast of cherry and earth, and similarly it only added brightness and charm to the Rioja, whose palate came over with a wash of juice. It’s almost too much of a precision instrument for the Albariño, which lost its generosity – it’s great if you like your Atlantic whites to be arrow-sharp, but we missed the fruity top notes. The white Bordeaux showed far better, that waisted bowl channelling a creamy opulence to the very back of the palate.
Verdict: A gorgeous artefact with serious practical purpose, lovely to hold and to use.
Beautiful shape and proportions: a generous rounded bowl with an elegant sweep up to a fine, narrow mouth. Excellent balance in the hand. The Zwiesel 1872 range is much loved by many chefs. It’s one of the lightest glasses in the line-up and it pulls off the magic trick of feeling almost weightless while having an undeniable presence. This is a glass that works on every level: it looks and feels gorgeous, and it works very hard indeed to coax the most recalcitrant flavours from the wines. It delivered the pretty floral aromas of the Burgundy on the nose and it brought structure to the palate: it added an extra edge of seriousness to the wine; the Rioja did just as well, the glass picking out a plushness and richness while losing nothing of the structure. The Bordeaux white brought the juiciness to the front and downplayed the acidity, while the glass managed to highlight the Albariño’s austerity and its generosity at the same time.
Verdict: Aesthetic and practical and with a preternatural ability to seek out and display the finest attributes of the wine.
Straight-sided and angular with a wide mouth and deep bowl, and a delicate but utilitarian feel. Excellent balance in the hand, feels almost weightless. A really lovely glass to hold. An all-round star performer, it brought out the finest attributes of the wines – for example showing the creamy density of the Rioja while dialling back the dry oak character. With the exception of the Bordeaux white, which it rather flattened (this is a wine that demands a glass with a narrow mouth to focus and channel the aromas), the glass unerringly picked up the most desirable attributes of each wine. The Burgundy showed cherry and spice and forest floor on the nose, with a nice plump mouthfeel; the Cune showed a creamy edge to the nose and coaxed a generosity from the palate. The Albariño showed a very pretty honeysuckle and melon nose and it accentuated the depth of fruit without losing the fine saline acidic backbone.
Verdict: A star all-rounder, though beware very structured, bone-dry whites.
Jancis Robinson MW and designer Richard Brendon set out with the admirable aim of producing just one glass for every wine: the exact opposite of the Riedel approach. The glass is elegant and strong-looking, with a no-nonsense straight-sided bowl and extremely thin rim. It’s nicely balanced, the distinctive base (of an unusually large circumference) providing a counterweight. It performed well across the four wines but with a very slight bias to the whites. It accentuated the floral nose of the Rioja and dialled back on the oak and vanilla, while the palate delivered juice and body, picking out texture rather than flavour; on the Burgundy it didn’t show the cherry aromas that we saw in Zwiesel and the Zalto, athough the palate came through as fresh, complex and structured. The glass came into its own on the whites. The Dourthe showed a sweet and attractive nose, the bowl concentrating the aromas into lime zest and delivering a citrus punch on the palate; the Albariño showed wonderfully well, the glass channelling the wine to the right part of the mouth, giving it an enhanced level of concentration and focus – and most importantly, length.
Verdict: An elegant glass that would enhance any dinner table; performs marginally better on whites than reds.
A very elegant, solid, old-fashioned unflared tulip bowl with a nice premium feel. I’d be very happy to have this as my house glass. You don’t see this shape any more but it really delivers, concentrating the cherry fruit aromas on the first swirl of the Burgundy, and accentuating the deeper, bass notes of the Rioja, giving it character, depth and intensity. It was slightly less successful on the whites, emphasising structure – acidity and texture – rather than fruit and sweetness. It worked better on the Bordeaux white than the Albarino, a wine with Atlantic-influenced structure and great acidity, which to work needs its delicate fruit brought to the fore.
Verdict: A consistent and dependable house glass.
A very delicate, small-featured, elegantly-proportioned tubular glass sitting lightly atop an almost invisible stem on a petite round base; it looks like a glass specifically for white wine. Lovely balance and feel in the hand. It works far better for whites than reds, though on both it seems to highlight structure, acidity and tannin rather than fruit. The Burgundy showed bright and fresh on the nose but on the palate the wine lost a bit of weight; the Rioja was the same: a fine creamy rush on the nose but it brings all the acidity and hard-edged tannins to the fore. On the whites, the Bordeaux came over as rather bony, the Albariño composed and elegant but lacking generosity or openness.
Verdict: A really pretty, balanced glass but too small and narrow to be universal.
The Speigelau, made by Riedel, is an outlier. A workmanlike glass, heavy and thick-rimmed, blocky and solid in the hand but with a pleasing, everyday shape. It channels aromas quite well, bringing out the sweet cherry flavours of the Burgundy and the earthy notes of the Rioja, but we’ve seen how a really sophisticated glass can pick up a dozen nuances instead of one or two. It worked better with the whites, bringing out the sweetness of the Bordeaux and some fine citrus on the Albariño. Still it’s a blunt instrument and rather out of its depth in this company.
Verdict: Solid and unassuming, a couple of steps up from a rental glass. Good for picnics and parties.
A hefty, cumbersome, old-fashioned glass with a thicker stem, straight sides and a wide mouth. Feels solid, business-like, indestructible. The Eisch was disappointing on both red and white wines. The wide mouth and almost imperceptibly-flared sides meant that crucial aromas were lost: the sweet cherry of the Burgundy fell away in favour of sour bramble notes; on the Rioja it accentuated tannin and structure but we lost the creamy, floral notes that are so essential for balance – the wine came across as rather hard-edged. The Bordeaux white felt a bit lost: after a first, very pleasing waft of stone fruit, the wine became austere and angular; the Albariño fared the same: the most desirable components were muted: you can see the wine there but frustratingly can’t reach it.
Verdict: Solid and practical, but it doesn’t show the wines at their best.