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What is the Best Glass For Your Wine?

How we went from drinking bowls to universal glasses, where one size fits all

Janice Williams By July 1, 2022
photo illustration of Zalto Universal Glass
Zalto Universal Glass; photo courtesy of Magdalena Weiss. Photo illustration by Pix.

The sound of shattering glass is loud, dramatic, and painful. But on a busy night at a bustling restaurant, diners barely even notice the common commotion of another wine glass broken. After all, most restaurants have plenty to spare. 

Even when a wine glass breaks at home, drinkers seem unfazed. They’ll simply go out and buy more.

Glass is fragile. It breaks – easily – but we keep on using it. Why? Because no other drinking vessel can showcase the nuance and splendor of wine quite like glass. 

Here’s why glass is the best option for serving wine – and how the best type of glassware was developed for drinking it. 

Key facts about the wine glass

  • History of the wine glass
  • Varietal-specific wine glasses
  • What makes the universal glass universal?
  • How to clean your wine glasses
  • Why you should avoid colored glasses
  • Top wine glass brands

A history of the wine glass

Glass can occur naturally, thanks to lightning striking a beach, or a volcano spewing molten rock. People soon caught on that they could also produce glass, by applying fire to sand. 

The idea of using it to make wine vessels dates as far back as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. By 500 BCE, people used vessels with a slightly curved, flat bottom and flared rim, almost like a cereal bowl, to drink wine. Around 200 BCE, the Phoenicians invented the glass blowpipe, so  glassblowers could now add handles, stems, and other decorations to their work.

According to Katherine Larson, a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, goblets like the stemmed glasses we recognize as today’s wine glasses started to appear in the third and fourth centuries. 

“Sometimes they have handles; sometimes, they don’t,” Larson says. “They start popping up during that era in the area that is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria — that area of the Eastern Mediterranean — and then that style of glass expands throughout the ancient Roman world and beyond.”

Glassware on display at Corning Museum of Glass, Fire and Vine exhibit

Glassware on display at Corning Museum of Glass, Fire and Vine exhibit. Photo courtesy of Corning Museum of Glass.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, glassmaking in Europe came to a halt, though not in the Middle East or Asia. Glassmaking returned to Europe during the 1200s, with Venice as the hotspot for production. Later, Bohemia — an area of Central Europe that covered what’s now known as Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — emerged as the frontrunner of the industry, according to a 2019 GuildSomm report.

The discovery of lead oxide in 1675 allowed glassmakers to create items with clarity. The invention of the hotter coal furnace in the following years produced thicker, more durable glass; then came the continuous furnace in 1867, which meant ovens could run day and night. And the industry was kicked into overdrive when automated glass blowing, created by the Owens Bottle Machine Company, was invented in America in 1903. Glassware could now be made with machines, rather than by the more arduous process of mouth-blowing.

Glassware became something everybody could have. 

Variety-specific wine glasses

Glassmakers had long made bigger glasses for red wine, and smaller ones for white. But the glass world was turned on its head in 1973, when ninth-generation Austrian glassmaker Claus Riedel launched a series of elegant glasses designed to highlight specific grape varieties’ nuances and character. Suddenly wine lovers had a specific glass to use for their Cabernet Sauvignon, quite different from the glass Riedel made for Chardonnay or Merlot. 

Cabernet Sauvignon glasses, for example, are taller, with a larger bowl. All the extra space allows more oxygen, which helps reveal Cabernet Sauvignon’s aromatics, while softening the wine’s bold tannins. 

“Riedel really capitalized on this phenomenon and invented this idea of different styles of glassware that could be used with different styles of wine,” Larson says. “That was a product of the mid-20th century consumer culture.” 

Today, the company offers more than 700 different glasses, and Riedel is one of the world’s biggest glass companies. Not only that, but the emergence of varietal-specific glasses has led to new scientific studies of how the glass size and shape can impact the perception of aroma, flavor, and complexity.

Yet, while varietal-specific glasses are still popular, it was the emergence of the universal glass that proved to be a game-changer.

What makes the universal wine glass universal?

By the end of the 20th century, several wine organizations like the IANO, the French body that oversees wine production, had developed standard wine tasting glasses for professionals to use at tastings and competitions. But nobody knew if these glasses were truly fit for purpose or not, and there were ongoing complaints that the glasses were better for reds rather than whites, and vice versa.

In 1999, German sensory scientist Ulrich Fischer called in a group of wine scientists and got them to taste and describe four wines served in different glasses. That study identified the best attributes for a wine glass, and the universal wine glass was born.

It generally has a mid-sized bowl and tapered rim that’s wide enough to amplify the wine’s aroma, regardless of which variety is in the glass. Typically, universal glasses also have a long stem, so drinkers can hold the glass without touching the bowl, which warms it. And, of course, they’re big enough for a standard single serving of wine when filled a third of the way up. 

The development of the universal tasting glass has given wine professionals across the globe confidence that they’re tasting wines in the best possible conditions.

How to clean your wine glasses

Cleaning wine glasses is generally easy, as most can simply go in the dishwasher. The trick is to load them carefully on the top rack where they’re less likely to move and keep them stacked away from other dishes. 

Sadly, however, many high-quality glasses aren’t dishwasher proof. In this case, the easiest way to keep them clean is simply hand-washing them with a sponge and unscented soap, or by soaking the glasses in warm water with a drop of soap.

If the glassware is very delicate, consider the various wands and brushes made specifically to wash stemware safely. Decanter cleaning beads can also help get red wine stains out of glasses. 

If you don’t mind a few water droplet marks on the glass, air drying is fine. But if you want a spotless shine, hand dry with a microfiber cloth immediately after washing. 

Why you shouldn’t use colored glasses

As pretty as colored wine glasses are, they aren’t the best for wine tasting. For starters, they can interfere with the perceived clarity of the wine and conceal any signs of flaws that may be detected from simply looking at the wine in the glass. 

Not only that, but the color will change the way drinkers perceive the taste, as shown in the 2019 study “Drinking through rosé-colored glasses: Influence of wine color on the perception of aroma and flavor in wine experts and novices.”

“Wine experts sometimes insist on having proper glasses that are smooth — no crazy bumps or designs or color or gold rims. Such things are annoying because they mess with their expectations about the wine,” the study’s author, Janice Wang, recently told The Drop.

No doubt about it, wine is the star of the show. But glassware plays the supporting role – though a fragile one. Luckily, as easy as it is to break wine glasses, it’s just as easy to replace them.

Top wine glass brands

When choosing the perfect universal wine glass, the options are limitless. Here are a few brands worth considering.

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