Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Putting Riedel Stemware to the Test

Monday just past offered up a welcome diversion to the usual workday. I teamed up with Jason Donnelly, Director of Wholesale Operations for Murray’s Cheese, to lead an early evening pairing seminar on the wines and cheeses of the Loire Valley at Wilmington, Delaware restaurant and wine bar, Domaine Hudson.

As Jason, one of my coworkers and I enjoyed dinner after the event, Domaine Hudson’s owner, Tom Hudson, stopped by to chat. Just back from a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Tom mentioned that nearly all of the wineries he’d visited were using the same glass in their tasting rooms, a new product from Austrian stemware giant Riedel. He’d ordered some of the glasses as soon as he returned home and wondered if we’d be up for a little taste test. As if he really had to ask….

I’ve been a longtime user of Riedel’s stemware. My cabinet is stocked with red and white Burgundy, Bordeaux, Riesling, and Port glasses, along with Champagne flutes. I do feel that each glass achieves an elegance of appearance and delivers a clear functionality.

Over the past few years, though, it seems like Riedel has introduced new stemware – and stemless ware – lines as frequently as the average Hollywood star introduces new cosmetic enhancements, which is to say alarmingly often. As with the multiplicity of unnatural applications for silicone and botox, I can’t help but have questioned the issue of form versus function, style versus substance, when it comes to some of Riedel’s recent product launches. So I was happy for this chance to put one of their latest designs to the test.

At left, my traditional standby for red Burgundy, Barolo and other aromatically intense wines, the Vinum Burgundy glass. At right, the new Vinum XL Pinot Noir stem; it's not as huge as the relative scale of these photos makes it look but it is taller than its cousin. (Images courtesy of

The glass in question is the Pinot Noir stem, part of Riedel’s new Vinum XL line. The only entry in the line that bears any drastic visual difference from the traditional Vinum series, the Pinot Noir glass is taller than the Vinum Burgundy stem, its bowl slightly less wide. The aperture of both glasses is identical but the bowl of the new Pinot Noir stem straightens into a chimney section at its top rather than continuing the flow of the bowl’s curve to the opening of the glass.

Tom gave us each two pours of the same wine, the 2006 Oregon Pinot Noir “Côte Est” from Le Cadeau Vineyard, one in each of the above glasses.

In the Vinum Burgundy glass, the wine gave off heady aromas of black cherry, blackberry and a mix of damp, loamy earth and burnt rubber. Big, chunky fruit followed on the palate, along with a volatile impression of alcohol, separate and distinct from the wine’s more desirable characteristics.

Even on the nose, it was remarkable how much different the wine showed in the Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass. The clumsy aspects were gone, replaced by much higher-toned notes of raspberry and crushed flowers, with a more appealing mineral/earth note. In the mouth, the alcoholic heat was far less noticeable, if at all, while the wine felt more focused and restrained. All the fruit was still there, but acidity was more perceptible and felt in better balance, less washed away by fat and heat as it was in the Burgundy glass.

So, the glass passed the test, delivering an enhanced tasting experience in the context of the wine for which it was designed. The design concept seems to run along the same lines as with Riedel’s Cognac glass, which I wrote about nearly a year ago. The Vinum Burgundy glass seems most appropriate for, well, Burgundy, where a generally lower degree of alcohol and greater delicacy of aroma benefit from a wide, rounded bowl and a sloping aperture which lets those aromas blossom. The Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass, though, as its variety-driven name suggests, seems tailor made for New World Pinot Noir. The narrower bowl keeps a slightly tighter rein on the volatile aspects of high alcohol while the chimney-like opening continues the squeeze, focusing the wine’s positive aromas and delivering a finer flow to the palate. At least that’s my interpretation of the science behind the design.

One needn’t have visited here for long to figure out that I’m, to borrow a term from Allen Meadows, a bit of a Burghound. Given a choice between red Burgundy and Pinot Noir from anywhere in the New World, I’ll go with Burgundy 95 times out of 100. So I’ll most likely be sticking with my good old Burg glasses. If you’re more of an Oregon/California Pinot aficionado, though, these new stems are worth the investment. In this case at least, there’s definitely substance behind the style.


Director, Lab Outreach said...

A Lab worthy trial. Nicely done. Twenty years ago, I was a skeptic about bulb shape, but now I'm never surprised when a Riedl design delivers.

Anonymous said...

Attended a tasting several years ago in Kentucky, of all places, where the Austrians came over to conduct a similar lab (long before many of the new fashions, I think). The most convincing aspect for me was a comparison between the thin lip of their stemware and the thick, rolled lip of cheap restaurant/bar stemware. The latter had the effect of deadening wines that had seemed much more alive in the good stuff.

Incidentally, the restaurant Puck down the street uses Riedel exclusively and for everything--water, wine, the whole thing. Given how many of these I have inadvertently retired and their cost even at wholesale, I'm not sure how they manage it.

David McDuff said...

Mr. Harden,
I must say, thoughts of the Lab crossed my mind as I was writing this. A worthy experiment for your team, I should think. It would be interesting to compare notes.

I was just wondering where you've been. And here you are!

I'm always happy to find a restaurant that cares enough to use good stemware, though I do try not to break it ;-)

Also, I always try to bear it in mind when considering their corkage fees and/or wine list pricing.

Wicker Parker said...

Stemware design vexes me. I have Riedel's cabernet set and basic pinot/nebbiolo set, but even for the latter varietals I had a better, more focused aromatic experience with the cabernet stemware. Why would this be, I wonder? Should I upgrade to the Vinum line for a better experience?

In any case, I use the cabernet glasses for all my wines, even Muscadet -- and tonight's Briords was, I think, nicely showcased. It may be a bit naughty to pour that way, but I gots what I gots...

David McDuff said...


I do think the Vinum series offers a measurable step up from the basic Magnum and Overture glasses but, of course, I can't guarantee you'll agree.

As to Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir showing better in the Cab glass, it could be anything from personal preference (on the subjective end of the scene) to alcohol and extract levels (on the objective). As more and more red Burgs are hitting 13.5% and Barolo is notching up as high as 15% (for some '04s I've tasted), a taller, narrower glass may indeed prove more effective.

I've said here before that if I were to own just one Riedel glass, it would be their Chianti/Zin/Riesling stem. Extremely versatile, focused enough for delicate wines and just large enough for powerful ones. The Cab glass is very much like an amplified version of the same design. And I too will sometimes use it for whites.

Just drank the '05 Briords last week, btw. Not too shabby.

Anonymous said...

Quick amendment to my comment: I am known for inadvertently breaking my own Riedels, not those of the establishments I frequent. That would be poor form.

Excellent advice on acknowledging the costs an establishment has incurred in order to provide a better experience.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the clarification, Joseph. I should have known better. Btw, Puck looks like a pretty damn stylish spot. I was surprised by the American wine theme. Is there a large demand for that in your area or is it more of a novelty attraction?

Anonymous said...

Hard to say for sure, D. There are very few places to get American wines here, so I would lean toward novelty (or niche targeting, given how swanky the place is). We are under two hours from Germany and about three hours from France here, so I would imagine proximity and maybe a tiny bit of snobbery play a role in the rarity of treats from the West Coast.

Puck is excellent. The name once stood for Pure Unlimited California Kitchen, but the "C" is now "Creative". The kitchen is one of the most open kitchens I have seen, integrating smoothly into the dining space without being a Benihana-style show. The food is notable for its freshness and the care with which it is prepared. Though the sushi is one dish on the menu, it rivals the very upscale Oni Japanese restaurant two doors down. Even simple fare such as fish and chips gets a nice twist with the addition of Madras curry and exquisite, thoughtful presentation.

Puck seems to do very well for dinner, but I'm surprised they keep the lunch. I have had some lovely lunches there and been almost completely alone in the place. Yet, getting a table for dinner, especially on weekends, requires a bit of advance booking or being a familiar face there. There is also a basement room with an intimate but somewhat clubby feel (if you know Washington Square in Philly, you're getting warmer) called PIP--Place In Puck. They are unusual in that they serve a small bites menu until 12:30 most nights, which is a couple of hours later than most restaurants in The Hague. Ronya and I have had some good jet-lag meals there.

The Hague has a wealth of good restaurants, much out of proportion to its size. Puck is among the most interesting, and if you find yourself up for a visit, it would be my pleasure to take you there.

David McDuff said...

I'd love to take you up on the invite, Joseph, as soon as my dollars climb out of the hole they're hiding in.

On another note, your comment is post-worthy in its depth and detail. I don't know how many readers I have in The Hague but perhaps you should/would consider writing a guest review here???

Anonymous said...

D - Yes, sorry about what an onerous undertaking it has become to visit Europe these days. Many thanks for the compliment--I would be honored to serve as your European correspondent when there's something useful to contribute. Please drop me a note to josephlogan (@) and let me know what you'd like to see. Would also be happy to offer a take on other European locations if there's an audience.

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