What's the Science Behind Wine Glass Shapes?

Do you need to have all of these shapes in your collection if you really care about wine?. (Photo: Novitech/Shutterstock)

The more I learn about wine, the more I realize I have a lot to learn — especially when it comes to the science of wine. When I wanted to understand the reasons for using different shaped wine glasses for different types of wine, I turned to Nova Cadamatre, a winemaker in the Finger Lakes, New York, region who writes the weekly blog The Personalities of Wine. Nova, one of Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40: America’s Tastemakers 2014, took the time to explain in layman's terms the basics of wine glass shapes.

Nova Cadamatre, winemaker in New York

You’ll want to read this interview with Nova carefully. Not only does she explain the science behind using different wine glass shapes, she also reveals why some wine tasters hold the glass by the base and what purpose nucleation serves in a sparkling wine glass. (And, yes, she explains what nucleation is, too.)

Treehugger: Can the shape of wine glass really make a difference? Why?

Nova Cadamatre: The shape of a wine glass is critical. There are four features to a wineglass which each serve critical roles. From the bottom to the top they are...

  • The base: The base quite possibly is the easiest of all the parts to understand. It makes sure the glass doesn't tip over. Don't cry over spilt milk but spilt wine is another story.
  • The stem: The stem serves two distinct purposes. The first is to allow the drinker to hold the glass without touching the bowl. If you hold a wine glass by the bowl you risk heating the wine from your body temperature. It's not ideal, especially for wines that need to be served cool or cold. If you feel your wine is too cold, cupping the bowl is the most effective way to warm the wine up.The second is holding the glass by the stem will keep the drinker's hands away from the rim of the glass. Our hands have their own unique scent which most of the time is increased in intensity through the use of fragrant soaps, lotions and perfumes. These scents can overpower, mask or change the aromas from the wine so the design of the stem allows these scents to stay as far away from the drinker's nose as possible while still allowing for adequate control of the glass. Some professionals even go as far as to hold the base rather than the stem for this reason.
  • The bowl: The bowl of the glass is where the wine is settled. The best glasses have a wider bowl than rim to allow for proper swirling. The swirl releases volatile aroma compounds and creates a vortex in the center of the glass towards which these compounds are drawn. When the drinker then puts their nose in the glass after the swirl they sniff in a concentrated amount of the aromas directly out of the glass. This allows for even the most nuanced of aromas to be detected. The larger the bowl, the more surface area the wine can cover. The more surface area the greater amount of volatile compounds can be released. Keep in mind that a wine glass usually shouldn't be filled to more than one-third the total height of the bowl in order to have proper swirling room. Otherwise you risk losing your wine in a wild swirling accident and again, avoid the spilt wine at all costs!
  • The rim: This rim is the point where the wine makes contact with the taster's mouth. The thinner the rim of the glass the more seamless this transition is and the more the taster can focus on the perception of the wine in their mouth and less on the feel of the glass.

Is it as simple as one shape for red and one shape for white?

I generally recommend three glasses: a white, a red and a flute for sparkling wine. (Although the white wine glass will work for that as well if you don't want to go too crazy.)

Whites will typically have a smaller bowl and will be a bit smaller in size than reds. Reds will have a wider bowl but may be shorter overall than the whites. For tasting, I only use one glass shape. I can adequately evaluate the wines — red, white, rose, sparkling or fortifieds — with the single one. But, if I'm sitting down to a nice dinner with wine I generally like to have specialized glasses.

If someone is serious about their total wine experience, how many shapes of glasses are they going to need? Explain a little about what each shape will do.

Depending on the glass company you prefer (and there are several good ones), they may have developed a glass for every variety of wine. You can get as crazy as you want to be. Like I said before, for serious wine people I recommend the three glass shapes I mentioned above.

  • Red: Look for a wide bowl and a narrow rim. You also want the glass to be fairly tall to allow for a generous swirl. Older reds can occasionally benefit from being poured in a white wine glass to capture the more delicate flavors.
  • White: Look for a narrower bowl than a red glass, however it should still have a narrow rim. White wine glasses absolutely need a stem. I can't stand drinking chilled white wine out of a stemless glass.
  • Sparkling: As I mentioned before, you can use a white wine glass for the sparkling wine. However, let's face it. Nothing spruces up your evening at home like a flute of sparkling wine. For sparkling wines, look for a long, narrow, elegant bowl. Look for flutes that have an etching in the base to allow for the bubbles to form. This is called nucleation. Bubbles will only form on surfaces that are not perfectly smooth which is why with very clean wine glasses you sometimes don't see any bubbles at all if they are not etched. The height of the bowl allows the bubbles to stay in solution more easily. This keeps the wine from going flat quickly. It's not important to be able to swirl sparkling wine. The bubbles will bring the aromas to the top of the glass for you to smell without swirling.

What about dessert wines? Do they need their own glasses?

Fortifieds generally don't need their own glasses and sweet style wines such as sauternes or Tokaji can be put in the white wine glass with no issues. Ports can use red wine glasses. The only wines I would consider for a dessert wine glass would be in the case of extremely sweet or concentrated wines such as ice wine, grand or rare Rutherglen muscats, trockenbeerenausleses or very old Madeiras.

Riedel Ouverture restaurant red wine glass

If someone has only one set of wine glasses that are all the same shape, is it totally going to destroy their wine experience? And, if someone is only going to have one shape of wine glasses, which would you recommend?

The wine experience won’t be destroyed at all. You may not catch the most nuanced of aromas, but a single, well-made wine glass shape is a worthy investment by any wine lover. Personally, I use the Riedel Ouverture Restaurant Red Wine glass (right) for all my official work tastings. It works well for all styles of wine, and at work you are not going to keep multiple glasses around. My glasses at home are a mix of Riedel and Scott Zwiesel. Both companies make great glassware.

Does what the glass is made out of — glass or crystal — make any difference in the taste of the wine?

It doesn't affect the taste but it can affect your perception of the wine. Crystal is a strong material so the rims can be made thinner without breaking. Wine glasses made of glass usually have thicker rims which can make tasting awkward. Glass is also more fragile and breaks easily. Make sure to choose un-leaded crystal since there is a chance that the lead can leach into the wine if it is leaded. This is especially important when choosing a decanter!

And finally, what about stemless wine glasses? Do you recommend them for any kind of wine?

Stemless glasses can make very elegant water glasses but I'm not a huge fan of removing the stem on a glass.