Glass and wine are two of mankind’s most sensual creations. When combined together these byproducts of nature provide us with one of life’s most hedonistic pleasures.
It’s far too easy for us in the wine industry to get serious about all things concerning wines and as a result turn off drinkers. So when composing this week’s column I made a concerted effort to keep things light and entertaining as I delve into the magical relationship between wine and glass. But before the triviality, a little history.
In the beginning
We’re not sure when mankind’s lips first touched a glass and drank wine but archeological digs have uncovered a plethora of glass objects including glass drinking vessels dating back to the late Bronze Age about 3,500 years ago. In ancient Rome the synergistic properties of wine and glass were already recognized. In AD 79, statesmen and poet Pliny the Elder noted that glass vessels were replacing gold and silver glasses as a status symbol among the wealthy. The Romans also used ornate multi-colored glass pitchers to pour wine.
One of the earliest depictions of the modern wine glass with stem is in Bonifacio Veronese’s 16th century “The Last Supper” painting. This painting along with other visual depictions indicated that the stemmed transparent wine glass was widely used in Renaissance Italy.
Modern wine bottles
Until the 17th century bottles were mostly used to serve wines while pottery vats or wooden barrels were used to store and transport wines. The round hand-blown bottles popular since the Middle Ages were just too fragile. The advent of the higher temperature coal burning furnaces in 17th century England allowed for thicker, stronger bottles. For the first time wines could be stored and shipped in slender shaped bottles made of sturdy glass. It was also about this time that corks became the preferred seal.
The thicker glass bottles were especially important for Champagne. The earliest examples of sparkling wines in Limoux then in Champagne were referred to as Devil’s wine due to their propensity to explode. With approximately five to six atmospheres of pressure these sparklers were dangerous to store and even more dangerous to ship. Therefore, even though it was the French who first made these delicious sparklers, it was the English advancement in glass that allowed them to become globally popular.
Significant mystery revolves around the punt. I’m often queried about this indentation or dimple at the bottom of the bottle. Is a larger punt indicative of a better wine? Many drinkers believe so, but they’re mistaken.
Nonetheless there are good reasons for a pronounced punt. The bottom of the bottle is the weakest point and the punt strengthens this area. It also consolidates any sediment into a thin ring at the bottle of the bottle thereby making it less likely to spill into the glass. Furthermore the punt adds stability to standing wine bottles.
Champagne glass evolution
The saucer shaped coupe was the earliest glass specifically made for Champagne. A popular legend in the wine world is that the shape of the glass is an exact replica of Marie Antoinette’s left breast. In fact, porcelain bowls molded from her anatomy can be found in Musee National de Ceramique de Sevres in Paris, but the coupe glass was first made in England decades before Marie Antoinette was born. Despite their salacious lore, coupe glasses are miserable vessels for drinking sparkling wines. Bubbles dissipate quickly, swirling is impossible and there’s no focal point for proper olfactory observation.
So out went the coupe glass and in came the fashionable flute. Today coupe glasses are reserved for Champagne fountain shows and those favoring light blue tuxedos.
The flute is designed to optimize the retention and observation of bubbles. An elegant glass indeed. While still the most popular vessels for bubblies, winemakers and authorities are moving away from these slender and elongated glasses to wider bowled styles. These bigger bowl fans believe that sparkling wines should be enjoyed more like a still wine and not just for their bubbles. I agree.
One of the most sensually pleasing wine and glass combinations is when Franciacorta sparklers are enjoyed in a beautiful Franciacorta glass.
You must give them credit; no one else really combines performance with style quite as beautifully as the Italians. While Champagne will always remain my first mistress of bubbles, it will come as no surprise to many readers that my present paramour of bubbles is Franciacorta.
The Franciacorta DOCG region is one of the few wine regions to officially designate an official glass. The glass has an ample bowl that tapers into a smaller opening. Wider and not as tall as a Champagne flute, it perfectly combines aesthetics with performance. In Shanghai you can find several top Franciacorta producers including Bellavista, Contadi Castaldo and Ca” del Bosco.
Whether you’re in the market for a sparkling or still wine glass, some of the best makers of crystal glasses are the European brands Baccarat, Schott, Riedel and Spiegelau. A more affordable crystal glass option is the Thai Ocean brand.