Crystal Wine Glasses for the Connoisseur

Crystal wine glasses often bring to mind your grandmother’s antique Waterford crystal. These decorative wine glasses can be colored, cut, or etched with beautiful designs. But for the connoisseur, such glasses are worthless. To them, wine glasses (or stemware) aren’t just drinking vessels, but instruments to convey the message of their wine.

Sounds over-the-top, but the glass you use has a tremendous impact on your enjoyment of wine. Even cheap wines taste more elegant and refined when served in suitable stemware. Drinking a fine wine out of a coffee mug is a waste of time.

The Perfect Wine Glass

INAO Wine Glass

The acquisition of excellent stemware is the first step towards improving your in-home wine experience. A great wine glass is plain, colorless, tulip-shaped, stemmed, with a very thin lip, and made of crystal. A tinted glass, or one with etchings, while beautiful, obscures the color and clarity of wine.

The stem allows you to hold the glass without warming the wine with your body heat. A thin, properly shaped lip directs the flow of wine into your mouth in such a way that the stream touches the most sensitive areas of the tongue. A thick-rimmed glass, on the other hand, accentuates a wine’s flaws, particularly acidity and bitterness.

Wine Glass Shape and Size

The shape of the bowl is the most important feature of any crystal wine glass. The tulip shape (i.e. the wine glass tapers slightly inward towards the rim) focuses and concentrates the wine’s aroma towards the nose. This is significant because the taste buds are not as sensitive as the olfactory bulb. Eighty percent of what we call taste, is actually smell.

ISO (or INAO) Wine Tasting Glasses are good all-purpose tools. These small, compact tulip-shaped glasses are the standard for tasting rooms, wine judgings and competitions. But, though they have the desired effect of concentrating a wine’s aromas, a larger bowl is often preferred, especially for red wines.

Wine aficionados prefer to serve red wines in large, broad glasses that encourage evaporation and the development of a wine’s bouquet. White wines are served in smaller, narrower glasses that prevent rapid warming and keep the wine chilled. If you like sparkling wines, consider buying a set of Champagne flutes. The long, narrow shape of these glasses conserves the bubbles and shows them off.

Whether serving red or white wine, these glasses should also be large enough to hold a decent serving without filling more than 1/3 of the glass. This gives the wine breathing room so its aromas can be released and inhaled. Champagne glasses, however, can be 3/4 full.

For red wines, the glass should hold a minimum of 12 oz (many of the best glasses have capacities ranging from 16 to 24 oz, or more). For white wines, 10 to 12 oz should be the minimum capacity. For sparkling wines, a capacity ranging from 8 to 12 oz is fine.

To make things more complicated, the whole concept of separate glasses for red, white and sparkling wines can be expanded to include different glasses for each type of wine or varietal. Riedel Crystal was the first to do this back in 1973 with the help of the Italian Sommeliers Association.

Riedel Crystal Wine Glasses

Riedel makes a glass for everything! Tawny Port, Vintage Port, Rhone Wines, old Bordeaux, young Bordeaux, even hard liquor. Before 2015, most of their wine glass collections including the classic, hand-made Sommelier series, and the less pricey, machine-made Vinum series were (24%) lead crystal. In their literature these days, they describe their wine glasses as fine crystal, which is confusing since that term doesn’t have an official definition. But now that they’ve banned lead from their products, their wine glasses are better described as crystal glass (see below).

Riedel Vinum Crystal Wine Glasses

Want to start a Riedel wine glass collection? Begin with a basic red and white wine glass. The Riedel Vinum Cabernet / Merlot / Bordeaux wine glass is ideal for full-bodied, complex red wines that are high in alcohol and tannins. The Riedel Vinum Chardonnay wine glass is perfect for dry white wines, including Chablis and lighter-style Chardonnay.

Or, if you like Rhone wines, get a Rhone wine glass. Begin with a red and white from your favorite varieties and go from there.

Crystal vs. Glass

The difference between glass and crystal is essentially lead content, but depending on where you are, a certain density and reflectivity of light is also required. The lead oxide in crystal gives the product clarity and sparkle, as well as a lower melting point and longer “work time”. But it also makes it soft and malleable, enabling crystal to be molded into thin, delicate shapes, or to be cut and etched. In the United States, any glass with more than 1% lead content can be called crystal, but the British and Europeans have a much stricter standard. The official British Standard (BS 3828:1973) which is basically identical to the European Union’s classifies crystal as follows:

  • Category 1: Full Lead Crystal – containing greater than or equal to 30% lead oxide with a density of at least 3.00 g/cm3, and a refractive index of at least 1.545.
  • Category 2: Lead crystal – containing greater than or equal to 24% lead oxide with a density of at least 2.90 g/cm3, and a refractive index of at least 1.545.
  • Category 3: Crystal Glass (Crystallin) – Must contain a minimum of 10% lead oxide, barium oxide, potassium oxide, or zinc oxide, alone or in combination. With zinc oxide, the density must be at least 2.45 g/cm3 and a refractive index of at least 1.520.
  • Category 4: Crystal Glass (Verre Sonore) – Must contain a minimum of 10% lead oxide, barium oxide, or potassium oxide, alone or in combination. Without zinc oxide, the density must be at least 2.40 g/cm3 and the Vickers surface hardness must be 550 +/- 20.

Note: Some metal oxides can impart the same characteristics to crystal as lead, but lead is superior. Plus the metal oxides listed above are not an exhaustive list of those used in manufacture, there are others like strontium and titanium.

Crystal wine glasses have a rougher surface, on a microscopic level, than regular glass. When swirling and aerating wine, this uneven surface makes crystal more effective at releasing esters. As a result, wine served in crystal stemware will explode on the nose, compared to plain glass stemware that shows a flat and lifeless wine.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to using crystal, it’s expensive. The hand-blown glasses in Riedel’s Sommelier series can cost $50 to $75 per glass. Even their machine-made series, Vinum is priced at a premium, about $40 for a set of two.

On top of that, questions have been raised about the safety of crystal, or more precisely, lead crystal. Studies have shown that exposure to even small amounts of lead can be harmful. Scientists have found that when crystal comes in contact with acidic beverages, some lead dissolves into the liquid. The amount depends on the lead content of the crystal, the type of beverage, and the length of time they are in contact with each other.

Studies show that acidic beverages such as port or wine will dissolve more lead from crystal than less acidic drinks like scotch or vodka. Acidic, non-alcoholic beverages such as fruit juices and soft drinks also absorb lead.

The longer a beverage sits inside a lead crystal container, the more lead is absorbed by the liquid. Scientists agree that beverages stored in lead crystal decanters for extended periods of time (about 3 months) is dangerous. However, debate still exists over whether the amount of lead leached from lead crystal wine glasses over the course of a meal is significant.

So, if all of this information makes you think twice about buying lead crystal stemware, you’re not alone, and for many manufacturers, the writing is on the wall.

Lead-Free Crystal

Lead-free crystal has been around for a long time. As you can see from the information above, the British Standard for crystal has been around since 1973, and it describes crystal glass, which is low-lead or lead-free crystal. The European Union’s Standard is even older, written in 1969. However, the shift away from lead crystal didn’t really start until 1991 with the publishing of the study by Columbia University described above.

Since then, the momentum has only increased and companies like Schott Zwiesel, Luigi Bormioli and Ravenscroft represent a growing list of manufacturers that believe lead-free crystal is the future. As mentioned above, in 2015, Riedel made the switch from lead crystal wine glasses, and its subsidiary Spiegelau (bought in 2004), has been a major player in the niche of low-lead (5%) and lead-free crystal wine glasses for quite some time. Its Vino Grande series is less expensive than Riedel ($50 for a set of 4), and is more durable.

Stemless Stemware?

One of Riedel’s first forays into lead-free crystal (2004) was the stemless wine glass or tumbler (sacrilege!). Ultimately, what matters is the shape of the glass. But, to many connoisseurs stemless wine glasses are anathema. Riedel “O” glasses are designed to be casual, everyday glasses with a trendy look. Hey, anything endorsed by Oprah….

Who Needs Crystal Wine Glasses?

Sometimes, relatively cheap wine glasses are all you need. Gourmet glasses don’t work when you’re serving 50 people or spending the weekend with Two Buck Chuck. Amazon makes all-purpose wine glasses for under $20 for a set of 4.