A brilliant cartoon by Matt depicts two men chatting across a table, both desperately clutching the stems of wine glasses so gigantic that the bowls rise above them like hot-air balloons. “I never have more than one glass,” one is assuring the other.
The sketch perfectly satirises attitudes to the “no more than one drink a day” medical dictum. It also serves as a commentary on the generous size of 21st-century wine glasses and the (equally generous) amount of wine we merrily glug into them.
Now, though, according to John Lewis, small glasses are back in vogue. The retailer says sales of “small” (which it defines as under 250ml) wine glasses and goblets have risen by 13 per cent over the last 12 months. Meanwhile, broadcaster and interiors arbiter Laura Jackson has launched a limited-edition bistro-style glass in collaboration with online store The Vintage List that, as well as having a fashionably short stem, also has a small (200ml) bowl.
Are we heading back towards the Eighties era of wine-drinking darkness, when the minuscule “Paris goblet” was considered the height of sophistication? I do hope not. I’m not very much of a wine snob, as at home with a £4.50 bottle from Aldi as I am with a Grand Cru. But I am a crashing glass snob.
Get the glass right, and you can effectively make a good cheap wine taste more expensive for free. Get it wrong, and you can make a smart wine taste very ordinary. The best way to serve wine is a small-ish pour in a large-ish glass. This ought to be simple – but I’ve noticed over the years that it causes a lot of confusion, so let’s take a few moments to unpack the idea.
The widespread use of larger wine glasses is relatively new, and often associated with a modern greed and lack of restraint. Yet when it comes to glass design and size, there are many other factors at play, among them eating fashions and taxes. In the first half of the 18th century, for instance, wine glasses were very small, but this was no indication of restraint. “With their gluttony and gout, Georgians were renowned for drinking copious amounts,” food historian Polly Russell has commented. In those times, wine was not served on the table. Instead, a glass was brought to a guest on a salver, necked on the spot then removed for cleaning and, presumably, refilling.
The introduction of Glass Excise tax, first levied in 1745 and not abolished until 1846, further discouraged the production of large glasses, as well as inspiring glassmakers to make glasses lighter by replacing thick stems with hollow ones. According to research published in The British Medical Journal, glass size increased gradually through the Victorian period and the 20th century, and it wasn’t until the Nineties that the gradient of the graph plotting glass volume against time began to veer sharply upwards.
Today, it’s not unusual to see wine glasses with a capacity of 800ml, 900ml or even a litre: mighty vessels into which (if you are so minded) you could pour a whole bottle of wine and still have space to squeeze in a bit more.
So what sort of glass is a good glass for wine? I’m going to take a leap of faith here and assume that one of your reasons for drinking wine is that you actually like the flavour, in which case there’s more pleasure to be had if you can smell and taste it properly. A good glass will capture the volatile aroma particles that rise from the wine, effectively amplifying the smell when you stick your nose in before taking a sip. In terms of shape, the glass needs to curve in slightly towards the rim.
The so-called tulip shapes do this perfectly. In terms of size, it clearly needs to be big enough for you to get your nose in. As Clément Robert, group head sommelier and buyer for the Birley Clubs, points out, a larger glass – “not oversized” – helps the wine “to aerate quicker and reveals itself faster”. You also want to have a bit of space to swirl.
Christie’s auctioneer and wine expert Charles Foley says: “We love a swirl, so always ask for Burgundy glasses in restaurants to get the big ones.” I don’t go quite so large, but the two wine glasses I use most often at home certainly wouldn’t qualify as small if we’re using the John Lewis definition of the word: I use the Zalto Universal (530ml) and the Riedel Vinum Gourmet (370ml), and both of these do a good job.
Now we need to talk about the size of the pour. Filling a glass to the brim is a horrible British habit that reeks of dulled tastebuds and some ancient fear of being thought ungenerous. Also, whatever the size of the glass, please don’t pour too much in. Robert says that when he first moved to the UK from France, he was shocked by the 250ml servings poured in so many of our pubs and restaurants. “It looks like a humungous amount of wine. And regardless of the actual size of the glass, you cannot swirl it comfortably and the wine gets warm.”
It’s worth pointing out here that wine getting too warm is an issue for reds as well as whites. Also, as Robert says: “If you are in a restaurant, 250ml is a big commitment for a wine that you might not enjoy” – a smaller pour allows you to move around the wine list. When out, I always order a 125ml serve, which all restaurants, pubs and bars are legally required to offer on any wine that they are serving by the glass.
At home, I generally pour 80-120ml. However, as this practice can make thirsty guests a bit twitchy, I always make sure the open bottle or carafe is left on the table and encourage friends to help themselves.