David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 10/28/2015:
A few years ago I was in Paris with few a friends. We had spent the entire day walking around the city and were in dire need of sustenance. It was Saturday evening and we were leaving in a few hours on the sleeper train to the south of France. We thought that it would be fun to have an impromptu picnic along the banks of the river Seine.
We purchased some sandwiches from a small deli along with a hunk of cheese and a bottle of right bank Bordeaux (this is a red wine blend with merlot at its base). We found a spot long the river wall and with our feet dangling over the river we set out our picnic as the sun was just beginning to set behind Notre Dame Cathedral. I fished a corkscrew out of my bag and opened the wine. The setting was complete.
Wine, food, good friends, a perfect late summer evening in the heart of Paris with a sunset illuminating one of the most iconic buildings in western Europe. Everything was perfect, I had even remembered to bring a corkscrew. It did not take me long to notice my obvious mistake. We didn’t have any glasses.
In the world of wine, a wine glass can really help make the experience much more enjoyable. While you can drink wine straight out of the bottle, doing so skips the fundamental tasting opportunity afforded by wine and that is to enjoy the aroma or bouquet. Tasting is 80% smelling and if you can’t smell something then the only thing your tongue can tell you is: salty, sour, sweet and bitter. This is why, when you have a cold and your nose is stuffed up, you can’t taste anything because tasting is actually smelling.
A wine glass is a purpose-made vessel for smelling. The bowl is round and the lip tapers inward. They are made this way because a round bowl is good for swirling wine which introduces oxygen, stimulates evaporation, and promotes small aroma molecules to be released from the liquid. These molecules, called esters, rise in the glass where they are somewhat trapped by the tightening diameter of the lip. The aromas linger here and when you take a sip of wine you inhale them and they form the basis for the taste.
The stem of a wine glass is also a deceptively simple thermal insulating device because the temperature at which you serve your wine is also important to the taste. Serve a wine too cold and the aromas will be numb. Meaning they are too cold to evaporate in the glass, leading to a bland tasting wine. Serve the wine too warm and the most volatile compounds will evaporate first. Alcohol is the most volatile compound and this leads to a wine that smells hot and burns the nose and throat. If you hold a wine glass by its stem you won’t warm the liquid with your hand, helping you enjoy the wine at an optimal temperature. If the wine is served too cold you can cup the bowl with your hands and warm it up quickly, releasing the esters which will noticeably improve the smell and thus the taste.
Back on the banks of the Seine my traveling companions and I were in a quandary. We had everything for a nice picnic except drinking vessels. In the end it didn’t much matter, we just passed the bottle around taking swigs from the neck. But I’m sure if we had some wine glasses we could have appreciated the full complexity of our Bordeaux. When traveling you learn to make do, and that wasn’t the last time on that trip we’d share a bottle of wine by passing it around. I’ve now updated my overseas travel kit to include not only my trusty corkscrew but also a small plastic glass for me.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.