Choosing a wine glass can be an overwhelming endeavor. After all, there are so many different wine glass shapes, and the variety can be downright confusing. You might be wondering, “why is a specific glass shape even important? Does it actually matter?” Luckily, enough research has been done on this topic to answer that question without reservation. Yes, it absolutely does matter.
Listen, you can enjoy some of your favorite wine, whether that’s an affordable $10 bottle or the most expensive Bordeaux, out of a mason jar, or a tin can, or a mug if you really feel up to it. You can really drink wine out of whatever vessel you want! But I challenge you…do a side-by-side comparison after reading this article. Pick a random cup or glass with a thicker rim and then choose one of the proper wine glass shapes. The proof is in the experience…and honestly why I often get frustrated when I go out to eat and the restaurant clearly hasn’t invested in quality stemware. It can make a great wine taste, well, kind of mediocre. Seriously.
With a little information about the benefits of different wine glass shapes, you’ll find there are some differences in flavors and aromas that you have been missing out on. Soon you might even develop a growing appreciation for choosing the right wine glass as part of the fun of being a wine enthusiast yourself.
The Importance of Oxygen
Wine, like other alcohol, releases ethanol vapors once poured out of the bottle. These vapors carry all the aromatic compounds that give each wine its specific aroma profile. Whats more important, when the ethanol vapor hits oxygen, the aroma compounds are further released. They are then available for your sniffing pleasure. This is where the term “opening up” in relation to a wine comes from. “Letting it breathe” is another descriptor of the same process. With more aroma comes more flavor. We taste more when we’re able to smell more.
The Importance of Wine Glass Shapes: General Guidelines
The importance of oxygen relates directly to why the shape of your glass is important. Wine hack: no matter what glass you choose, never fill it up all the way. Why? Well we just established the importance of oxygen in releasing the aroma compounds of the wine, which in turn affects the taste. No matter what glass you use, you’ll want more empty space in the glass than wine. This way, you can give it an effective swirl and release even more sense-pleasing aromas. Don’t worry…you can refill that glass again!
This brings us to importance of shape in a glass. Not all wines are made the same. Not just from varietal to varietal (ex: Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon) but also from region to region. Generally speaking, a fuller bodied and higher alcohol red wine will need a larger bowl as well as a larger opening. This allows the ethanol to dissipate before reaching your nose. Otherwise, you’re likely to smell, and feel, nothing but the burn of the alcohol. Conversely, lighter white wines with more fruit flavor require wine glass shapes that will preserve the fruit and floral aromas. These glasses should have a smaller bowl and smaller opening.
Glasses Made for Different Styles of Wine
I promise you that for every varietal and region of wine, someone has gone to great lengths to develop a glass shape that is deemed ‘ideal.’ Although true and for the right reasons, this can really break the bank when stocking your cabinet. For the average daily wine drinker, it really isn’t something that you need to be investing in heavily. If you want glasses that play to the strengths of the different styles of wine around the world, then we can narrow it down. There are three different types of wine glasses (not including sparkling or dessert wine) that will do the job. I, and many wine drinkers I know, do fine with just these three.
If we break the styles of wine down into some broad categories, we come up with roughly ten styles. This may be up for debate, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll look at just these ten. They include: aromatic white wines, light bodied white wines, full bodied white wines, rosé wines, orange wines, light bodied red wines, medium bodied red wines, full bodied red wines, sparkling wines, and dessert/fortified wines. Discarding sparkling wines and dessert/fortified wines (until later at least), we have eight styles. These eight styles can be enjoyed out of three wine glass shapes.
How to Choose the Right Wine Glass
The three basic wine glasses that you can enjoy these styles out of are as follows:
- Light bodied white wine glass
- Full bodied white/light bodied red wine glass
- Full bodied red wine glass
The Light Bodied White Wine Glass
This glass is for your highly acidic wines that express zesty fruit flavors. These wines are made without aging prior to bottling. Think Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Albariño. Even aromatic whites that you serve on the colder side, like Riesling, will do well in this glass. The glass has a smaller bowl and smaller opening, which is meant to preserve the light aromas. It keeps the wine closer to your nose, and exposes less surface area of the wine to air, which will also keep it cooler. These are the wines you want to serve on the colder side. Having a glass like this is a good idea for those wines.
The Full Bodied White/Light Bodied Red Wine Glass
Some whites that are oak-aged wind up having a large amount of aromas that are secondary and tertiary. This means aromas that are not fruit. Think of a Chardonnay that has aromas of butter, biscuit, and lemon tart. These wines need a wider bowl that captures the more complex aromas. They also need a smaller opening to send them to your nose. The alcohol on these wines tends to be higher, so you want a wider bowl to allow more oxygen contact. White Rioja does well in this glass. The fuller bodied aromatic Viognier, which gives off rich tropical fruit aromas at a cooler, but not cold, temperature, does well in this glass. Orange wine, the fullest of the full bodied ‘whites,’ does very well in this glass.
Do you know what the best part of this glass is? It effectively accomplishes the same thing for light bodied reds as it does for fuller body whites. Wines such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Nebbiolo, and the ever complex/high acid Zweigelt varietal. These wines have high acidity and very subtle aromas. They need a larger bowl with a smaller opening as well for the same reasons that a Chardonnay does. A good rosé even does well in this glass. It may be the most important and versatile of the wine glass shapes on the list.
The Full Bodied Red Wine Glass
The beast of all wines requires the beast of all glasses. Think of the rich fruit and velvety mouthfeel of Cabernet Sauvignon. A spicy Syrah or the ever changing but always spicy and fruity Zinfandel qualifies. Also, the epic flavors of strawberry sauce and cinnamon coming from Grenache fit the profile. These wines boast the highest alcohol content, excluding fortified wines, as well as the most robust flavors. They demand and require a very large glass, with a large bowl and a large opening.
The same concepts about the importance of oxygen apply here. You need space to swirl, and enough oxygen so you can truly enjoy those flavors. For those same reasons these are also often the best wines to decant or at least let breathe in your glass a bit before enjoying. A fun experiment is to take a sip as soon as you pour it and then wait 5-10 minutes for your next sip to see how the aroma and flavor profile changes with exposure to more oxygen.
Sparkling Wine and Dessert/Fortified Wine
These are the other wines glass shapes not mentioned. Why? Because if you really needed to, you could drink both out of the light bodied white wine glass. If that isn’t suitable for you, then go with the tried and true Champagne flute or tulip, which is our preferred shape for bubbly. The slightly wider body and small opening maintain a healthy concentration of bubbles and direct aromas right to your nose. For dessert wines, a lot of dessert wine glasses don’t give you the space to swirl. With the exception of this style shown above, our favorite for after dinner drinks. With a lot of these wines having complex aromas and higher alcohol, you need a little bit of space to swirl.
Finally: Are Stems Important?
I encourage you to keep some stemless wine glasses for when you have a party and need extra glassware without breaking the bank, but it is important to know the role that stems play. Without a stem, you need to grab the bowl of the glass with your hand. This will inevitably warm up the wine and that can be undesirable for a lot of the wines we discussed.
So yes, when there is a stem always hold your glass by the stem so you don’t impact the temperature. Unless you’re at a restaurant where they serve their whites too cold (unfortunately this is very common)…then go ahead and palm that wine glass for a bit to warm it up. And let the server see you doing it, or say something directly, to send the message and hopefully help the next person get a more appropriate temperature pour. When you are serving wine in a stemless wine glass just make sure you put it down in between sips and aren’t holding it the whole night to keep that temperature in check.
If you don’t want to fill your cabinet up with every possible glass imaginable, then don’t. You can do it with the three types of glasses we’ve discussed here, and by following the simple principles of how oxygen effects the aromas of the wine. With this knowledge you can generally make some effective decisions on which glass to use, even if it is a varietal you have never tried before. Just taste it once and decide: Light bodied or full bodied? Aromatic? How cold should this be served? You’ll do just fine and perhaps spread the knowledge to your friends.
If you want to get your hands on some of our favorite wine glasses, including some of the styles outside of the 3 primary ones we’ve focused on here, head on over to our Home Bar Must Haves shop. We also have our favorite wine-glass holding plates for when we throw a party, a Coravin so you can slowly savor those special bottles or just have a glass at a time without needing to finish the entire bottle, and more. That Coravin is especially important when you’re joining our Virtual Tasting Experiences and we’re tasting from 4 bottles at once!
Do you have favorite glassware or wine serving guidance that you follow at home? What are your favorite wine glass shapes? What about pet peeves related to glassware when you eat and drink out? Let us know in the comments below!