Does that Wine Glass Really Enhance your Wine?

My partner loves fancy wine glasses.  Unfortunately for her we don’t have much room at home, or have people over very often, so it is hard to justify buying different sets for different wines and occasions.  Of course, this doesn’t stop either of us from gazing upon the various options in whatever home store we happen upon.

Were we to buy some nice glasses, I suspect we’d draw upon a number of excuses to rationalise our decision, the key two being:

  1. They look and feel really nice, and
  2. Experts say the right glasses enhance the flavour of the wine.

I have no problem at all with the first excuse.  It’s the second one that sets off my bullshit meter, because ‘experts’ are often wrong and I’ve not actually seen any evidence that the assertion is true.

To test whether wine glasses enhance the taste of a wine, you’d have to do some blind testing.  That is, the wine tasters would have to be blind to which glass they were quaffing or sniffing from when they gave their judgements.  Pretty much all of the tests I managed to find in my trawl of the web were unblinded (see here for a recent NZHerald ‘test’), so the participants may have been influenced by the look of the glass itself rather than any true structural effects of the vessel.

I did manage to find one reference to research using blind tests, in a section of Wine Science from 2005 by Dr Ron Jackson:

…shape does affect the intensity of the wine’s fragrance – those possessing a wide base and narrow neck enhance the perception of the wine’s aroma.  However, the differences detected from a variation of shapes on the wide–narrow theme were marginal.  Published evidence does not support the view that particular shapes uniquely enhance the character of specific wines.
However, the reference also states…
That particular shapes are not uniquely suited for tasting particular wines does not mean that they do not affect perception or, indeed, aesthetic pleasure.  Science has amply confirmed that visual and psychological influences often have a greater effect on what we perceive than the more subtle sensory data provided by taste and smell.
That’s right, the effect of the wine glass shape is very real in a sense, but that sense is pretty much all in our heads.  If you take away the visual cues of the glass from the drinker, you also take away the differences in taste experienced. Knowing this is likely to have a couple of implications:
  1. You’ll be better prepared to argue with the next wine glass snob you encounter, and
  2. Different glasses are now likely to have less of an effect on your perception of wine taste.
I guess another implication is that the glass that most enhances the flavour of a wine will vary from person to person; the more aesthetically pleasing the glass is for you, the more it is likely to enhance your experience of the wine you are drinking.  So don’t let people tell you what glasses you should use.  Use the ones you like best.
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