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Eric Risberg  /  AP file
Stemware manufacturers claim that different shapes and sizes of glasses can improve or detract from a wine.
updated 8/14/2009 12:34:31 PM ET 2009-08-14T16:34:31

Can a fancier glass add class to your wine?

Stemware manufacturers certainly think so, offering varietal-specific designs that supposedly enhance whatever you care to quaff.

To Maximilian Riedel (rhymes with needle), CEO of Riedel Crystal, a glass is the "messenger" that shapes and delivers wine in a nuanced manner influenced by slight changes in the design, such as a bigger bowl or narrower rim.

"There is no one glass that can showcase every wine," he said as he led a recent tasting seminar in the Napa Valley.

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Conventional wisdom holds that sparkling wines keep their bubbles better in skinny flutes. Heavier whites, such as a chardonnay, usually are served in glasses with a fairly large bowl; red wines generally are served in "tulip" style glasses, with the rim slightly narrower than the bowl. And there are plenty of variations of each.

But there also are plenty of skeptics.

"The glass doesn't know what kind of wine is in there," points out Joshua Wesson, a former sommelier and co-founder of Best Cellars, wine stores selling inexpensive wines. "Good wine is good wine and good taste will out regardless of the vessel."

There's not a lot of science on the subject, hardly surprising since wine tasting is highly subjective.

Greg Hirson, an enology graduate student at the University of California, Davis, recently studied how glass shape affects the smell of a wine (smell is a considerable component of flavor). He analyzed aroma compounds in the "headspace" or upper portion of a glass, then had human testers sniff the wine.

The shape of the glass did seem to have some effect. A glass with a wider bowl (base) and narrower rim, say a typical Bordeaux glass, did seem to make wine more intense to the human testers. But the effect was small, and, Hirson points out, intensifying flavor doesn't guarantee improved taste.

Which is not to say he doesn't like a fine wine in a fine glass.

"There's certainly an emotional aspect to tasting wine out of an expensive glass," he said. "You feel differently. You feel like it's more of an event. There's the whole pomp and circumstance about drinking wine out of a glass and I think it will change your perception of the wine tasting, but I don't think it actually changes the wine."

These days, Riedel has an extensive line of wine glasses, including a recent addition designed specifically for Oregon pinot noir after producers in that region made a case their wines were unique enough to merit the distinction.

Wesson agrees that glass shape affects aromatics to some extent and calls Riedel glasses "beautiful." But glass shape can't change the ultimate degree of pleasure that you take from drinking, he said, calling wine tasting "a binary exercise — thumbs up or thumbs down."

He needs "four glasses on my desert island." Stemless for everyday drinking, an all-purpose wine glass for red, one with a slightly larger bowl for white and a flute for bubbly.

On the other hand, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, owner and president of International Wine Center in New York, has "dozens" of wine glasses at home.

She concedes that thinking about glass shape "is a little bit geeky," but is convinced that glass design can affect wine taste, to the point that she once took her own glasses to a favorite restaurant that was using inferior stemware.

"The glass definitely is the delivery system and the process of delivering is definitely relevant," she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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