As if learning the vocabulary, geography, and producers in the wine world isn’t challenging enough, in the last couple of decades, glass manufacturers have made a killing off of creating dozens of glassware lines and convincing wine drinkers we need multiple types of glasses to be serious about wine. Although the glassware section of my book, Wine for Normal People, wound up on the cutting room floor, this is a topic my podcast listeners love to ask about and one I was excited to re-examine.
I guess we should start with the most important question: Does a glass really make a difference to a wine’s taste? After copious research and testing, I can tell you that glassware does matter to your enjoyment of wine. Certain glass shapes and materials do enhance wine’s aroma and flavor—and some even detract from it! I tested 6 highly-regarded wine glasses and found the best premium, mid-tier, and affordable options for all kinds of wine drinkers. Read the winners below. If you're wondering whether you really need separate glasses for different types of wine, scroll to the bottom of the page for a guide to wine glass shapes—and the types of glasses I think are necessary for most wine drinkers—as well as details of my testing methods to determine the best wine glasses to buy.
The Best All Around Wine Glass: Zalto
Zalto is widely considered the gold standard of glassware by wine connoisseurs and professionals alike. It is made of mouth blown, non-leaded crystal; it's incredibly light; and it's shaped like a piece of art. It’s beyond fragile and using this glass is a bit unnerving, but in test after test with wine after wine it not only allowed the wine to express itself, but in many cases it made the wine taste better than all the other glasses.
From white and red Burgundy to white and red Bordeaux, Italian white to California rosé, Chilean Pinot Noir to Spanish Rioja, the Zalto glass improved the naturally occurring aromas and flavors of each wine effortlessly. But to go a step further, the amazing thing about the Zalto is that it seems to elevate the wine’s subtleties and nuances, introducing new or stronger positive aromas and flavors that the other glasses don’t. For instance, you may get notes of an old medieval church incense and black pepper in a northern Rhône Syrah with the Zalto, but just an herbal note from other glasses (I know it’s crazy but it’s true).
The experience of swirling with Zalto is unlike any other—the lightweight construction and virtually spill-proof bowl (it tapers significantly) made for the most effortless spin, allowing for great aeration and giving it huge points for ease of use. The tapering at the top made every wine’s aromas shine so completely, to the point where the wines felt actually transformed and seemed to transcend themselves.
Although this is technically a Burgundy glass, I found that it improved a variety of wines almost universally. In a line-up of 10 glasses, even done blindfolded, this glass over-performed on experience, flavor, aroma, and comfort. Although the delicate quality of these glasses had me a bit stressed with each use and especially each (hand) wash, it wasn’t enough to deter me from grabbing it over every other glass, every night. It is, despite its fragility, the undisputed best wine glass you can get for your wine.
Because it is so expensive, we recommend just the Burgundy glass as the one you need but if you have some extra change lying around and drink white wine, pick up those too.
$63.00, Wine Enthusiast
Slightly Less Money but Still Great: Riedel Veritas
Ok, so, it’s no Zalto, but the Riedel Veritas is half the cost and was a consistent the runner up in test after test. This glass is still fragile thanks to a spindly stem the company has become known for, but the leaded crystal has a slightly sturdier construction than the Zalto while still boasting a narrow rim that feels luxurious and comfortable for sipping.
The Pinot Noir glass did equally well with red Burgundy, Nebbiolo, Bordeaux and more tannic reds. Fuller whites were even slightly better in this one than in the Zalto. The white wine glass enhances the aromas of German Riesling, Italian whites like Fiano, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
The Veritas does exactly what a great glass should do: allow ample swirling room and enhance the wine’s natural characteristics for both the white glass and the red. The difference between this and the Zalto, for reds specifically, is that the Veritas doesn’t add the nuance and subtleties the Zalto does. It doesn’t improve the wine or allow the more intricate notes to come out. But what it lacks in whatever magic of the Zalto is, it makes up for in affordability and the fact that they are less nerve-racking to drink from. That said, Riedel claims these are dishwasher safe, but unless you plan to make these stemless glasses (My take on that below!), the stem is imminently breakable. These have to be hand washed.
Since the white wine glass performed pretty much equally to the Zalto, you could consider buying the more expensive glass for your reds, and opting for this mid-tier pick for white wines.
The Best Glass for the Normal Wine Drinker: Spiegelau Vino Grande
This little glass (owned by Riedel now, though it was once their biggest competition!) outperformed much more expensive glasses with its thin rim, excellent bowl for swirling, and ability to concentrate aromas. The red and white glasses are thin but it felt sturdy enough that I never worried about breaking it and it goes into the dishwasher and comes out in one piece. For the money, these glasses are the little engine that could. They came in third or fourth place in tasting every single wine—from Nebbiolo to Malbec, Chardonnay to Gruner Veltliner. This is an elegant everyday glass and it blows away its competitors (Schott-Zweisel, Stozle, Libbey, and the more expensive Gabriel Glass). I will warn that although the white glass is spectacular, it is quite small in comparison to the Burgundy glass. It works great, but it can be surprising when you open it, especially in comparison to the ample size of the Burgundy glass.
A Guide to the Four Shapes:
You don’t need a glass for every region or grape but depending on what and how you drink, there are four standard glass shapes you should consider. The combination of these shapes plus the cost, fragility, wash-ability, and comfort in holding and drinking will be the keys to getting the best wine glass for you.
The White Wine Glass
Shaped like a tulip, this glass has a round bowl and goes straight up before tapering slightly at the top. The bottom of the glass allows you to swirl without spilling but the real magic of a white wine glass is that it concentrates aromas of the wine at the rim, and traps them slightly so we can sniff the (hopefully) delicious things the wine has to offer.
The standard white glass is a bit smaller than the red: since whites don’t need as much aeration (swirling) they’re smaller. Also, whites are almost always served colder than reds. Pouring smaller quantities into the glass will ensure that what you have in the glass always stays at a cool temperature. This glass type will work for almost all white wines, except for fuller whites like oaked Chardonnay and white blends from the Rhône Valley, for example.
The Burgundy Glass
Shaped a bit like an upside-down mushroom, these glasses have wide bowls and then taper at the top to a narrow rim. The huge bowl allows for tons of swirling. With reds and the fuller whites, you want to introduce a lot of air into the wine. The swirling motion jostles the esters and aldehydes in wines, which are the things that make the juice smell so good. In very aromatic, but less mouth-drying tannic reds, you want to concentrate the aromas at the rim of the glass to maximize the intensity of smell compounds your nose can sense. The wider base allows room to swirl (you should never fill these glasses above the bulge in the glass or it's spill city) but the top ensures that delicate aromas of red Burgundy (Pinot Noir), Beaujolais (Gamay), or Nebbiolo, for instance, aren’t lost.
The Bordeaux Glass
This is a giant version of the tulip shape we find in the white wine glass, although it tapers less at the top. The relatively straight sides of this glass and large bowl allow air to penetrate before, during, and after swirling, allowing harsh tannins to dance with the oxygen and soften up—exactly what you need to enjoy a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux blend, a Rioja from Spain, or a Syrah from the northern Rhône of France.
The Champagne Flute
This is actually quite a controversial opinion among wine snobs: Flutes are festive, fun, and they do, in fact, help keep the sparkle in your glass for longer. There are some practical issues with them (unless you drink sparkling a lot, they gather dust; if you have a beak like mine, that can be an issue for drinking; and the dork argument—there’s no room for swirling) but I love enjoying sparkling out of them and I drink enough of it to have them around. Still, they are optional. A white wine glass works just as well.
What about universal glasses?
Try as they might, over and over again, the universal glass always makes one wine or another a loser. They are too narrow for tannic reds and sometimes don’t aerate the wine as much as they should. They are too wide and open for aromatic reds or delicate whites (although they are better for whites than reds most of the time). Regardless of how high the quality of the glass, the shape matters too much for these glasses to work for all wine types. My advice: buy a set of whites and reds (I think Burgundy glasses are more useful than Bordeaux), and leave the universals to people who didn’t read this article.
I could (and have) waxed poetic about how absolutely essential serving temperature is to the aroma and flavor of wine. If it isn’t something you currently consider when drinking and you actually like wine, thinking about this will revolutionize your drinking experience. There are all sorts of charts and recommendations for temperatures at which you should drink wine—I have a whole page of them in the appendix of Wine for Normal People because it’s that important. The gist is that we serve whites way too cold—they should be out of the fridge for at least 15-20 minutes in most cases before drinking, and reds are served WAY too warm—they should not be sitting out on a counter in your home which is likely 70˚° F but should be chilled to 50–55° F in most cases and in the rare case about 60˚° F.
Other Glasses I Tried
The only glass that came close to being as great as the Spiegelau was the Bormioli Rocco In Alto. Although thicker glass and much heavier, the rolled glass rim and the excellent shape for swirling gave the Spiegelau Vino Grande a run for its money. I still prefer the Spiegelau but the Bormioli Rocco gets a nod for construction, lack of fragility, ease in washing, and overall tasting experience.
How I Tested
At the risk of sounding like a total lush, we tested and tested, and tested these glasses. We used, among others, the following benchmark wines: Left Bank Bordeaux, White Burgundy, Barolo, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, Chilean Pinot Noir, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, white Bordeaux, northern Rhône Syrah, Aglianico, Argentinean Malbec, Austrian Grüner Veltlier, and dry German Riesling (It should be noted that we had a few weeks to do the testing!). The best and only way to compare glassware is to pour a small sample into each glass, and compare the following factors:
1. Aroma. How does the glass enhance or suppress (or in some cases, ruin!) the aromas of the wine. There was a marked difference in the experience of the wine depending on the glass, so the answer to the age-old question: does glassware matter is: HECK YES!
2. Flavor. Although it really followed the line with aroma since most of flavor is driven by our sense of smell, we did check to see if the flavor differed based on the glass and if that was different from the aroma (spoiler alert: no, so that means aroma alone was enough to make a judgement on quality of the glass).
3. Fragility/comfort in your hand. This matters way more than I thought it would. The fact is, that although two of our absolute favorite glasses over-performed again and again, the wispy-ness of the glasses and the feeling that you could destroy it if you held onto the stem too hard or put it down in the wrong way did affect the experience of the glass and made it harder to enjoy the wine. In the end, you do make a compromise between fragility and sturdiness; delicate glasses made wine taste better but owning a sturdier, less expensive option for everyday use relieves anxiety.
4. Rim thinness/material. The rim is the place where your mouth makes contact with the wine. Although this may be something we only think about sub-consciously, a thin rim will mean less interference, less material to come between you and the wine at the point where you first taste it. The thinner the rim, the more you can concentrate on the wine and not on the glass. How do you get a thin rim? Usually by using crystal, which is a stronger material than glass, so it can quite thin without breaking. There is a huge difference in the experience of drinking out of a big thick glass and a skinny thin one.
5. Ease of cleaning. If you drink a lot of wine, you know that clean-up is a really important factor. Although we’d all love to painstakingly clean our wine glasses by hand, dry them with a specialized micro-fiber towel, and set them in a well-lit display case for all to see their spotless gleam, most of us have jobs, many of us have families, and none of us want to waste time cleaning wine glasses at the end of the night. If it’s hard to care for a glass, that factors into its overall goodness.
In terms of shape, I recommend buying one set of white glasses and one set of red (Burgundy are more useful than Bordeaux) glasses. Although Zalto has challenges because it is so delicate and thin, the absolute pleasure and improvement of each glass is worth every moment of stress…but only if you can handle being overly cautious with the glass. My advice: get one or two Zalto Burgundy glasses for special occasions and buy the Riedel Veritas or Spiegelau Vino Grande for your everyday enjoyment.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious