There are 14 different-shaped glasses before me, each filled with the same Central Otago pinot noir. You'd think they'd all smell and taste the same. But as I witness, along with the winemakers gathered by Austrian glassmaker Georg Riedel to find the perfect vessel from which to sip Central Otago pinot, the differences are profound.
"Forget the look of the glass," urges Riedel , before we rate the glasses for the way they make their contents taste. "It's all about how the wine performs in the glass: how it shows the aromas and complexity. Then when the wine hits the palate, how its texture feels and how it differs from glass to glass."
Riedel travels the world holding masterclasses to convince wine drinkers that what one imbibes from matters - not just aesthetically, but in terms of a wine's aroma, taste and texture. Since his father designed the first glass tailor-made for a specific grape variety 55 years ago, the company has expanded its range to make stemware to suit an array of grape varieties and wine styles.
It's easy to dismiss this as marketing spin and until I'd attended my first masterclass with Riedel some years back, I was somewhat sceptical. But now as we sniff and slurp our way through glasses that run the gamut from big and bulbous to small and narrow, it becomes clear that where some allow the pinot to blossom, others diminish its aromas and flavours, and even render its acid and tannins remarkably harsh.
"It's terrifying how my wine has been dissected 14 times!" says Rockburn winemaker Malcolm Rees-Francis, while Central Otago pinot pioneer Alan Brady is "amazed" at how different his Wild Irishman pinot noir tastes in each of the glasses. "It was like I had tasted 14 different wines, and for me there was one clear winner which stood out from the rest," he says.
When our scores are collated, two glasses emerge natural victors - both, as it turns out, created by Riedel for pinot noir. "The perfect pinot noir glass has a rounded, bulbous bottom and a thin pointed flow at the top," explains Riedel. "All the pinot noir glasses have a very pointed delivery, which positions the wine to the front palate. This emphasises the fruit and de-emphasises the acidity, giving the best balance to the wine and maximising the variety's delicate fruit."
Designing glasses to enhance different grape varieties isn't an exact science and often requires much tweaking to find the ideal shape. However, it is generally accepted that a tapered bowl is the most wine-friendly shape in helping concentrate aromas.
Size also plays an important role. Larger styles work best for wines that benefit from aeration, such as many reds and chardonnay, while smaller glasses are more appropriate for the likes of aromatic whites, the aromas of which can dissipate through contact with air.
Riedel stresses the importance of taking rim diameter into consideration. "It plays a critical role, as liquid flows by gravity to the palate," he notes. "For example, the narrowest trigger the head to move further back, which adds speed to the liquid and positions it deeper on the palate; every positioning on the palate triggers a different flavour picture.
"We can't change the wine," he says. "It's all about the difference in perception triggered by the senses."
Riedel has now committed to working with Central Otago's winemakers to create a new pinot noir glass honed for the region's examples. It's something of a coup, given that to date Riedel has designed very few glasses for individual regions. This is planned for release by Hancocks next year. But in the meantime you might want to heighten your pinot-drinking pleasure with one of Riedel's current lines.
SHAPED TO FIT
Riedel Vinum XL Pinot Noir - $68
This was the glass I preferred and also came out highest ranked overall for the appreciation of Central Otago pinot noir. Originally developed for the cool-climate pinots of the Oregon region in the US, Riedel considered it a strong contender.
Riedel Vinum Extreme Pinot Noir - $69
Developed with the more intense profile and fruit concentration of New World pinot noir in mind, this glass was ranked second overall and top by Riedel himself, who says it suits Central Otago's "beautiful ripe fruit".
Riedel O Pinot Noir - $32
Identical to the Riedel Vinum Pinot Noir glass with the added durability of having no stem, this wasn't in the Central Otago tasting, but is a great everyday glass out of which a lot of pinot in my household is consumed.
For Riedel stockist information, visit riedel.co.nz