The Science of Drinking
What you drink from has a far larger influence than one might think. Maximilian Riedel is on a mission to convert what you drink champagne from as the difference between glasses really is quite remarkable…..
Article by Rupert Watkins
You might think it’s simple: uncork the bottle, pour into glass, throw back and forget the rigours of the day. But are you wasting much of the potential of what you are drinking? Maximilian Riedel, the 11th generation head of Riedel glassware, is not a fan of such a slapdash approach – and when the head of a 260 year old firm asks you to reconsider, it’s worth listening to his advice.
Despite the firm’s age, Riedel has invested heavily in contemporary research and factory production. That said, Maximilian is extremely proud of the heritage of their craftsmanship; “We still retain traditional glass blowers – they are a prized part of our family,” he says. In recent years many of their artisans have been sourced from Eastern Europe; “Glass making is a talent – it is a difficult medium to understand and master.”
This history of artisanship and culture means Riedel is at the forefront of glass design, constantly seeking the best glass for the every drink. For Maximilian, the “wine glass is an instrument; if you use it incorrectly you will not get the best out of the wine.” As such, “shape and size matters.” And he is always keen to challenge consumers expectations – be they knowledgeable wine lovers or novice drinkers.
Twice a year, Maximilian or his father, Georg, come to London to conduct tastings with their glassware. Currently Maximilian – who interned at Taittinger as part of his education – is on a mission to change what people drink Champagne from. Riedel has introduced two new glasses – one for Chardonnay based and one for Pinot Noir based Champagnes. Both are far larger than the flutes many of us are used to consuming fizz from. These larger glasses allow the parfum to come to the fore.
Maximilian admits “there is tradition in the champagne flute.” But it can be good to question tradition; “is there something better?” Flutes show off the colour and bubbles of the wine very well but don’t allow the smell to develop – and when the flute is overfilled bubbles get up the nose. A larger glass means the wine becomes that much more three dimensional; not only can you get your nose in a larger glass and savour the smell, but the mouthfeel on the palette subtly changes.
Flutes tend to allow the more mineral, brut edge of champagne to come out; in Maximilian’s opinion, the flow of the wine out the glass and into the mouth doesn’t give enough space for fruit to balance out the taste. After sampling Laurent-Perrier Brut out of all three types of glass, I can vouch for the enormous difference it makes. There’s no doubt a larger glass gives a very pleasing depth and body to the wine. It flows into the mouth in a more controlled manner, hitting the tongue further towards its tip, with its abundance of taste buds. The acidity is balanced, allowing the fruit to come to the fore; there is more texture.
Riedel does still produce flutes and coupes. Coupes remain popular at weddings for glass pyramids, and are currently undergoing something of a renaissance, following films such as The Great Gatsby. But Maximilian points out that Champagne in the coupe’s 1930s heyday was in fact much sweeter than today, which suited a shallower glass. Indeed, he reminds us that at one point in the early 20th Century it was considered a dessert wine. Drinking modern, drier champagne out of a coupe means you tend to suck at the wine which in turn means too much foam and thus acidity.
Moving on to Rosé; Riedel has developed an even larger glass for this wine. With the added body given to Rosé by the addition of Pinot Noir grapes, a traditional flute certainly dilutes the parfum hugely and even Riedel’s brut glass does not quite allow it to develop to best effect. The Rosé glass has a lip to improve the flow, slightly boost the acidity and allow the wine to hit to hit the tip of the tongue. Again, the larger glass gives the wine in it a chance to breath; “never be afraid of big glasses,” says Maximilian; “They support the wine.” Drinking Moët & Chandon Rosé Imperial out of the largest glasses on offer at the tasting was certainly a revelation. The body, depth and nose of the wine changed utterly in the purpose designed glass.
Maximilian plans to engage with sommeliers, to enlist their help in encouraging this way of drinking Champagne. But the fact Riedel’s business is still largely based on private sales, means that their own tastings remain critical in educating average wine drinkers. “People have to experience drinking out of the correct glass,” Maximilian states, convinced that those that do clearly become converts. One of the two challenges facing Riedel is rapidly changing customer habits; people remain keenly interested in understanding how best to drink wine, but formal dining in the home is on the decline, and the rise of eating out does alter the nature of what people are prepared to invest in. To this end, Riedel has always offered differing price points for its glasses, to try and broaden their accessibility.
The other factor is hardened consumer habits; “People buy based on looks rather than performance,” Maximillian sadly points out. That said, young professionals are breaking these habits, and those between 25 and 35 form a large part of Riedel’s customer base. These younger wine enthusiasts are beginning to realise the best way to maximise the taste and potential of all wine you drink – even if premier crus and the finest vintages are completely beyond your means – is to invest in the correct glassware.
Returning to the tasting, one of Maximilian’s possibly more controversial points was to decant Champagne both to aerate the wine and to refine the temperature at which it is served. But he stresses that this must be done slowly so as not to disturb the bubbles. Even if this proves to be too much of an alcoholic heresy for you, Maximilian is an engaging and witty master of ceremonies and for those wishing to deepen their understanding of wine, Riedel’s glass tastings are certainly a fun way to go about it. At the very least, I encourage you to try some Champagne out of a larger glass this season; you never know, you may be pleasantly surprised.