Georg Riedel’s Glass Act

“I’m here to complicate your wine life,” said Georg Riedel with a grin at a recent wine tasting in Portland, where he had landed to evangelize his much-debated position that glassware can impact the flavor and enjoyment of wine. Riedel was planning to make his point by having guests of the tasting sample three different wines made from Pinot Noir grapes in four different glasses (and a plastic airplane cup): the Overture Magnum glass (non-varietal specific), the Vinum Burgundy, the Vinum XL Pinot Noir and the Vinum Extreme Pinot Noir. While the three Vinum glasses are only slightly different in shape, each is designed for a specific style of Pinot Noir. “The glass is like the wing of an airplane,” Riedel said. “The shape of the wing shapes the flow of air over the plane.” Eyebrows raised.

With each glass holding a small pour of 2006 Estate Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley Vineyards, we were instructed to swirl, sniff and taste each one. “When the wine comes on your palate it immediately paints a flavor picture,” Riedel explained in his authoritative, Austrian accent. The Overture glass presented the Willamette Valley Pinot nicely, but simply, while the Vinum XL showed subtle nuances and bright fruit not found before. A show of hands indicated that for this Pinot Noir, the Vinum XL was the audience pick, with the Burgundy glass in a close second, and most finding the Vinum Extreme highlighting too much tannin and not enough fruit in the wine. Okay, I’m partially sold.

Next up, we sampled Hanzell’s 2005 Pinot Noir from Sonoma in each of the four glasses, and while it fared well in each one, different components of the wine emerged in the varying glasses: yeast in the Overture; lots of barrel-sweetness in the Burgundy; soft, but too-subtle rose petals in the XL. Like Goldilocks searching for “just right,” the audience chose the Vinum Extreme glass for this wine, which perfectly incorporated roasty, toasty barrel notes with the right amount of fruit, acidity and tannin.

For the final experiment, we tasted the 2002 Le Plan des Dames Premier Cru from Domaine Rion Chambolle-Musigny in all four glasses. The previous demos had convinced me that aromas and flavors of wine do, in fact, change with the glassware, but this wine left me stunned. What tasted dusty and muted in the Overture glass came across as fresh in the Vinum XL and forward in the Vinum Extreme. But it shone its brightest, as an Old World classic, in the Vinum Burgundy glass, which harmoniously integrated all of those single characteristics into one delicious glass. (On the other hand, out of curiosity, my coworker poured some of her Premier Cru into the plastic airplane cup and after a sniff and sip, said, “A wine like this would taste good in anything.”)

All in all, the impact of a tasting like this can largely be framed by the experience itself and the allure of Riedel’s zealous demonstration, but regardless, the tasting was an intriguing look at how aroma and flavors can shift within the subtleties of a glass. Whether or not I’m completely sold, I did find myself nudging open a little extra shelf space in my home bar for a few new wine glasses.