Advice on Wines and Stemware

Advice on Wines and Stemware

Mat Sanders
Nov 24, 2010

One of the best parts of gathering around the dinner table is the sharing of a bottle of wine. But with so many options in stemware available today, how do you choose what type of glass is appropriate for the wines you love? Does it matter? To answer these questions and more, I sat down with my go-to wine guy, Craig Cavallo.

A long-time friend and fellow wine enthusiast, Craig Cavallo has been working in the food & wine scene for years in New York. His latest gig at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's vast and busy culinary emporium, Eataly, has pushed him into the Italian wine scene where he dedicates himself to helping people understand the endless and often confusing differences between Italian grape varietals. But with so many options, I always wondered what exactly is the right type of glassware to use for the different wines I love. Earlier this month we rounded up this year's Best Wine Glasses. Now I sit down with Craig to get some advice and pick is brain about the purpose of the various shapes of stemware.

So why do we use wine glasses and what exactly are all the different shapes about?
Well, glassware didn't really come into fasion until the 15th century - reason being glass was initially an extremely rare and expensive product. It wasn't even until the late 1950s that wine glassware became prioritized, largely in part due to the manufacturing genius of Claus Riedel, who revolutionized glassware by being the first to let the actual characteristics of the wine itself dictate the various shapes of stemware.

A wine glass is comprised of the foot, stem, and bowl, and different shapes perform different functions - though all glasses are designed to maximize the characteristics of the grapes anatomy once it is turned to wine.

Burgundy glasses have broader, bigger bowls, which allows for more aromatics to collect while the small opening (or aperture) concentrates these aromas for the drinkers experience. The Bordeaux glass is meant to hold wine made from grapes that thrive in the Bordeaux region of France, most notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. These have a taller bowl and are designed to guide the wine to the back of the drinker's mouth. Champagne flutes are meant for sparkling wine. Their shape is not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but it also adds to the ceremony of drinking sparkling wine and helps maintain the sparkle.

What is your best advice for a novice wine drinker looking for one good set of stemware?
Wine glasses exist in dozens of different shapes and sizes, and the options can sometimes be overwhelming. A quick look online for wine glasses exposes you to what seems like a different shape for each particular varietal. For the casual wine drinker, I suggest one decent set of Bordeaux glasses that functions for red, white, and even sparkling. As a traditionalist, I'm not really a fan of the stemless trend. The stem is where you are supposed to hold the glass because it keeps fingerprints off the bowl and refrains from body temperature affecting the wine. Also, stay away from colored glasses and plastic. With tinted glassware, you can't see what's "truly" in the glass, and materials like plastic have subtle aromas that would also obstruct the wine experience.

Do you have any favorite resources for wine glasses - both low end and high end?
I think Bed, Bath, and Beyond or Ikea work just fine for everyday glassware because you can use 'em, love 'em, break 'em and buy new ones on the cheap. For a higher-end option I always go back to Riedel - it's quintessential and elegant. Although, with the way my dinner parties go, they rarely make their way down from the shelf!

You are famous for your dinner parties amongst friends. So, let me give you a dream-case scenario: You are hosting an elaborate four course dinner party - what would you serve and drink?
Honestly, if I were serving a multiple coursed dinner with different wines, I would reuse the same glasses. But, if we are talking "dream meal," I would start with a sparkling wine - either a Franciacorta or a sparkler from Trentino (a northern Italian region). Ferrari makes a sparkling wine called Perle, which is an incredibly lush, yeasty wine that would drink wonderfully with smoked cured meats and stinky cheeses.

For the next course, I think a bright, fresh, acidic white wine with a rich pasta would be fun. The acid in the wine would serve to cut the fat in the pasta dish.

As it gets colder I tend to find myself trying to warm people up with braised meat. I would finish the savory part of din din with something like braised rabbit, tomato, olives, and kale. Using different ingredients, each with their own unique flavors, makes a dish more labyrinthine and fun to pair with a layered wine. A Barbaresco would do fine with a dish like that, due to the versatility and intriguing complexity of the wine's grape, Nebbiolo.

I always like to finish a meal with some sort of digestif or single malt. For these, I really enjoy serving them in these simple 6 oz. rocks glasses I found at Ikea. If dessert was involved I would do a Passito, or a sweet wine, served in what's called a pony glass. It actually gets its name from horse racing carnivals where people would rush to the bar for a quick drink between races. It looks like a miniature Bordeaux glass and is good to use when drinking liquors that are meant to be consumed in small amounts.

And of course, what are your plans for Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and time of year. I love the weather and the food the earth gives us around this time of year. I haven't picked the wines I'm bringing but I'm planning on pricking and prodding my family with a bunch of wines that will challenge their taste buds. I am a weird guy and I like my wines to be the same way. I plan to do a tasting of sorts - a celebratory sparkler and three or four crazy whites and reds as to expose my loved ones to the beautiful diversity of wine.

Thanks, Craig!

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