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Tim James: On the importance of decent wine glasses

May 2, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 1 Comment

A hi-fi geek friend told me that the first thing anyone eager to improve their sound equipment should do is upgrade all the cabling, especially the speaker wires: it’s comparatively cheap and entirely effective. I can think of two equivalent lessons for beginners in learning to get the most out of their wine. The first is totally free (and surprisingly necessary): start sniffing the stuff as well as drinking it and double the sensual pleasure. The second is anything from moderately to monstrously expensive: drink from decent glasses.

The Tim James glass collection.

The Tim James glass collection.

That said, I’ve never been a glass nut, though always having a motley collection of at least fairly good glasses; certainly never suites of glasses designed for different kinds of wine (beyond red and white, and perhaps pinot). In fact I am continually surprised at how many people have been through the extraordinary experience of a Riedel tasting and perforce realised how unequivocally significant the shape and size of glass is in revealing or suppressing factors like tannin, fruit and acid – and yet continue to, basically, ignore the lesson. I’m one such.

Largely immune to the Riedel claims, I could see that the glasses were rather fine objects. My own conversion to pricey stemware was, I’m rather ashamed to say, for reasons more aesthetic than vinous (ok, the two are indeed complexly linked for people like me who believe that the experience of a wine does, and should, go beyond “what’s in the glass”). But when I first drank out of a Zalto glass – impossibly slender, light as air – I was convinced. The absurd cost of the things, though, kept my lust in check. And when I eventually decided to leap, Great Domaines, the importer, was temporarily out of stock.

On cue, Wine Cellar in Cape Town brought in a glass called the Gabriel Glass, designed by Swiss wine critic René Gabriel – one design, supposedly perfect for all types of wine. Having done the Riedel experience I’m doubtful about that claim, but don’t really care: the glass is similar in ineffable airiness to Zalto (and even in its angular design, though with slightly concave, funnelling sides rather than Zalto’s straight ones). Crucially, about half the price. Still hardly cheap – so bang went a nice chunk of my end-of-year bonus when I bought six of them for R2100.

I haven’t regretted the purchase; and I haven’t yet broken one of them – I only use them for a treat now and then, and when I have really good wine to drink – but am sure I will. That’s why I bought six; there’s room to contract….

It occurred to me to wonder, though, if the sales of Riedel glassware in South Africa were being affected by inroads from Zalto and Gabriel, especially as the value of the rand was plunging. So I rather diffidently asked Michael Crossley, a director of the Reciprocal Wine Company in Johannesburg and in charge of their Riedel imports, if he’d mind telling me. He didn’t, and was pleasingly frank (but as his business is clearly booming, why be shy?).

“It is a business that often amazes us”, Michael told me. “The ‘culture’ or desire for real brands in the glassware market is extraordinary, you can’t believe what people are willing to spend on new ranges/replacements etc. Of course there are those who love the brand and it is a real budget issue to purchase, so breakages are a travesty, but there are also those who phone to order fine wine, and ‘just add another 8-pack of  glasses’ while you have them on the phone.”

Reciprocal does over 95% of Riedel’s business in Africa; and it’s a business that’s growing, despite the exchange rate. “We continue to stock a range of Riedels at over R800 a piece.”

As for the new competition, Michael claims to be pleased rather than worried. “You don’t want to be the only vendor selling glasses at R250-plus when your closest competitor is Woolies at R60”, he says. “The other brands help raise the general perception and desirability of these ‘luxury goods’.”

The very rich, I’m reminded, are pretty unassailable. But my six luxurious Gabriel glasses had better see me out.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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One Comment

  1. KwispedoorMay 2, 2016 at 12:47 pmReply

    And then we generally have to drink out of chunky Irish coffee glasses with huge rims that bounce wine unceremoniously onto our palates when we step out of our homes in SA. Eish. Surely everyone will agree that there’s a Kimberley hole between those and a Zalto, but I’m not entirely convinced about the smaller nuances between the different designs of luxury wine glasses.

    I’ve attended the Riedel experience and sure, sometimes there’s a marked difference in how a wine shows in the “correct” glass. But having, for instance, a Chardonnay-specific glass is a bit like asking how long a Chardonnay can be matured for. Surely the style of wine (and other factors) easily have as much bearing as cultivar does?

    At other times, I felt that the nuances are not as marked between different glasses. I couldn’t help feeling that the (very enjoyable) show that is a Riedel experience tasting, is also at least partly an exercise in being led by the nose (to your wallet).

    If they give each taster a few different glasses with three different types of Chardonnay and ask them to pick the best glass for Chardonnay (without consulting each other and not seeing which glasses the others are voting for), there’s bound to be varied results. But that’s not the way it goes down. Expectations, visual stimulation, group behaviour and presenter-prompting plays a big role. Unlike with wines, it’s virtually impossible to do a blind glass tasting… Pour me a Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1991 (or the likes) sighted and my naughty bits will probably stir before the wine hits the bottom of the glass. That’s not saying there won’t be any stirring if I tasted the same wine blind, but hopefully, in trying to make my point, eloquence trumps elegance.

    Considering the hi-fi analogy, where significantly better high-end cabling often lays bare limitations in inferior hardware components, I’m left wondering if modest wines will only benefit by being drunk from proper glasses up to a certain point?

    Finally – hello, Mom! (the only one still reading) – I remember the first time I drank out of a Zalto. It pleasantly messes with your brain and exalts (exZalts?) the whole wine experience. It really is fantastic to drink out of high-end glasses, but I was also just a bit nervous about breaking the damn thing. Perhaps that adds to the Adrenalin flow.

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