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 Tasting 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. Ninety 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.

Thirty years ago there were only 10 shapes and sizes in their gourmet wine glass series, today there are 46 in their Sommelier series and 25 in the less pricey Vinum series. Riedel makes a glass for everything! Tawny Port, Vintage Port, Rhone Wines, old Bordeaux, young Bordeaux, even hard liquor. All their glasses are full lead crystal except for the Ouverture series made of plain glass.

Riedel Vinum Red & White 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, although the level of craftsmanship is also considered. The lead oxide in crystal gives the product clarity and sparkle, but it is also the source of some controversy. There are no official American standards regarding crystal, but much of the World follows the official British Standard (BS 3828:1973) which classifies crystal as follows:

  • Fine crystal must contain 6% to 10% lead oxide, or
    be made with an exceptional level of craftsmanship.
  • Lead crystal must contain 10% to 24% lead oxide.
  • Full lead crystal must contain 24% or more lead oxide.

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 stemware that shows a flat and lifeless wine.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to using crystal. The hand-blown glasses in Riedel’s Sommelier series are extremely expensive and fragile (they can cost $50 to $75 per glass). Even their less pricey (about $40 for a set of two), but more durable
machine-made series, Vinum, has a tendency to break.

On top of that, questions have been raised about the safety of 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 crystal container, the more lead is absorbed by the liquid. Therefore, over the course of a meal, the amount of lead released from crystal wine glasses tends to be low. In contrast, beverages stored in crystal decanters for extended periods of time (about 3 months) can accumulate very high levels of lead.

So, if all of this information makes you think twice about buying crystal stemware, there are alternatives. You can start with glasses that have a lower lead content.

Spiegelau makes fine crystal wine glasses of only 5% lead oxide. Its Vino Grande series is less expensive than Riedel ($50 for a set of 4), more durable (dishwasher safe), and still maintains some of the advantages of full lead crystal.

Note: Spiegelau is now owned by Riedel.

Unleaded Crystal?

Other metals can be used in glass-making to impart the same physical properties as lead. Indeed, some companies have already switched to compositions based on barium carbonate and oxides of strontium, zinc and titanium.

Schott Zwiesel, Luigi Bormioli and Ravenscroft represent a growing list of manufacturers that believe that lead-free crystal is the future. Even Spiegelau has its own line of lead-free crystal wine glasses (vinovino), and Riedel’s latest innovation is the lead-free, stemless wine glass (sacrilege!).

Stemless Stemware?

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.