I was lucky enough last week to be a prisoner, uh, I mean pupil, of the famous 10th generation glassmaker George Riedel for a two hour tasting demo of his Sommelier Series of glassware. Three glasses—the flat wide Montrachet Chardonnay coupe, the buxom Bourgogne Grand Cru Pinot Noir glass with “acidity spoiler”, and the classic Bordeaux Grand Cru, Cabernet/Merlot glass.
There’s always a control sample in these things, so he also included a basic red wine glass from the restaurant we were at, and another “joker”—a plastic cup. All for a reason.
First, it was the Chardonnay, the 06 Januik Elerding VIneyard from Washington. “Think of the glass as a place to let the wine to fill a space with its aromas.” In other words, don’t fill your glass too full. We had to smell, first, of course, and note the lovely floral white flowers in the aroma, and banana, but also golden apple. When we taste, it has bright fruit and acidity, “nervous on your palate,” he says. Yes, I get it! Rich, but integrated oak. I was surprised, since these wines do have a tendency to smell pretty oaky.
Then we poured the white into the restaurant glass, and it definitely had a stronger mineral, salt component and a bitter finish. Then, into the plastic glass, where it had absolutely no smell, as the straight-sided glass captures none of the aroma, “diluting the concentration of aroma,” says George, “until they are below our ability to smell them.”
George is an almost sixty (“I’ll be able to ride the train in Austria for half price when I turn sixty!”), and exceptionally well-dressed, and even more exceptionally well-mannered, with the slightest of Austrian accents. Charming, as it were.
“We have two types of senses,” he says. “The official—sight and hearing—that can be measured through a benchmark.” You have 20/20 vision, you have a 20% hearing loss in one ear. Measurable.
“The other senses are private. We can only attempt to explain them to each other—what we taste, what we smell and what we touch. Sensual.”
George gets serious. “I am going to complicate your wine life,” he says, and talks about the life of the wine being a combination of many things, a story from the aroma through to the taste and to the finish, “an echo of the wine,” which he finds of ultimate importance.
We move on to the Lachini 03 Pinot Noir from Oregon in the big round Bourgogne glass, which supposedly captures the delicate aromas of this “prima donna” of a wine. The little flip-lip at the top helps keep the acidity under control, and the shape of the glass pours it in a little arrow straight to your mid palate, so as not to get too much tannin in the back or sides of your mouth. “The shape of the glass determines the intensity of the aroma,” he says.
Again, we move the wine from glass to glass, noting the smooth red berry and earthy minerality in the big glass, the green, almost cabbage-like aromas in the Chardonnay glass, (“You can almost LISTEN to how the grass grows on your tongue!” he says), and in the Bordeaux glass, the pinot is “a disaster!” according to George. I have to say I agree.
Someone reaches for a cracker.
“No crackers!” he says. “Suffer!”
The crowd, a combination of well-off Bellevue-ites (well, they were two weeks ago, anyway), a few young, hot sommeliers and a few poor writers who expect little and get a free dinner once in a while, are not used to suffering.
“How can I complicate your wine life if you are not suffering?”
So we move on to the Cab, a 2001 Caymus Cabernet. Napa at its best, a noseful of dust and bramble. In this glass it smells like picking black raspberries on a perfect summer day. “And now,” says, George. “We are going to destroy this wine!”
And we do. We put it into the Chardonnay glass, very similar to most nice red wine glasses we all have in our kitchens. A big round coupe. But George says we need straight sides for these big red wines, to let more of the tannins and acidity out so it mellows them. In this glass, the Cabernet is flat, with gripping tannins and higher acidity. Weird, but true.
Someone asks, “So can I just start buying cheaper wine and drink them in these glasses and they’ll taste more expensive?” “Good question,” says George. “No.”
The crowd laughs. He goes on to explain that a bad wine will taste mediocre in a good glass, but a nice wine will be even better, and who doesn’t want to bring a wine to its full potential? It has been waiting in the bottle all that time for you, after all.