“Think of wine like music,” says Georg Riedel, the head of the famous Austrian glass company that bears his family’s name. “We’re toolmakers. We don’t write the score; we’re the amplifiers.”
We were at the Argentine consulate in New York for a taste workshop to see which shape of glass best “amplifies” the violet scent, dark, rich, berry flavor and velvety tannins of wildly popular malbec.
The first-ever glass to show off Argentina’s signature red will debut on April 1, in time for Malbec World Day on April 17.
Does the world need it?
Argentine winery Graffigna thinks so. It commissioned Riedel to come up with the design and has a one-year exclusive to use and sell it.
Having a special glass designed by Riedel is getting to be a beverage rite of passage, a way to announce that a wine style or varietal has finally arrived. Canada’s Inniskillin winery, for example, partnered on an ice wine glass back in 2000 to up the category’s image.
As everyone knows, Argentinian malbec is a huge success story. According to a report commissioned for Wines of Argentina, annual growth in U.S. malbec sales was consistently double digit from 2004 through 2011, and from 2007 through 2012, the number of cases exported to the U.S. more than doubled.
Georg Riedel’s father initiated the craze for varietal specific glasses back in 1958, when his Burgundy grand cru design drew immediate acclaim. Forty-five years later, the company’s portfolio includes 29 different shapes.
The idea is to use the shape and size of the glass bowl to highlight a grape’s most desirable characteristics.
“It’s all about engineering,” says the 64-year-old Riedel, who’s wearing a six-button, double-breasted black jacket and pinstriped shirt, both of which he designed himself. “It’s primarily about the nose. What you smell is what you taste.”
As Riedel describes his theories about wine and glassware, citing the importance of the thickness of a grape’s skin, I find myself pretty skeptical.
Scientific experiments have shown that people think a wine served in an elegant stemmed glass is superior to the same wine served in a bistro tumbler.
A number of studies have debunked the idea that the shape of the glass significantly enhances a wine’s flavors, and suggest perceptions of differences are merely psychological, based on expectation.
Maximilian Riedel, Georg’s 35-year-old son, who will become president of the company in July, sketches out the six-month process to get to the final six glasses in our line-up: taste tests at Riedel in Kufstein, Austria, then multiple tastings in Argentina with the Graffigna winemaking team.
Since malbec was once a main grape in Bordeaux, they tried cabernet glasses -- and quickly eliminated all of them.
“Most Argentine restaurants serve malbec in a cabernet glass,” says Federico Lleonart, the Graffigna global ambassador. “We found that was the very worst choice.”
Georg Riedel shudders and adds, “Malbec tastes better in a plastic beaker than in a cabernet glass.” I doubt that.
Will 10 wine critics agree with the final shape chosen as the best by the Riedels and Graffigna’s winemaking team?
Before we sniff and sip, Riedel advises, “This is a very emotional tasting, just your palate and the wine.”
We warm up in round one with six glasses, each containing the same 2012 Graffigna malbec barrel sample.
In round two, we have Graffigna’s 2010 Centenario Reserve malbec ($12) in the same six glasses.
The majority of the tasters, including me, agree on which three to eliminate: In No. 3, the tannin sticks out; in No. 5 the wine’s aroma seems musty, and the No. 6 glass emphasizes the alcohol, as if the wine had been laced with a shot of vodka.
For round three, we sample the 2008 Graffigna Grand Reserve ($20) in the three remaining glasses. I dismiss No. 1 -- the wine tastes too thick, tannic and chocolate-y.
But I’m torn between No. 2 and egg-shaped No. 4, which both flatter the wine. The No. 4 emphasizes sweetness and fruit and is the overall favorite. It turns out to be a hand-blown prototype of the new malbec glass.
Even as I’m convinced the shape made a difference in this very unscientific tasting, I wonder about the universality of the glass for all of the country’s malbecs.
I find most of them vastly overrated, lacking complexity, finesse and ageability. And many of the new, expensive “icon” wines are heavily extracted and loaded with oak, which no glass can change.
The best producers, like Catena, have been discovering how sensitive the grape is to different microclimates.
Though pleasant, fruity, and not over-oaked, the Graffigna malbecs lack the depth and sophistication of the 2009 Catena Alta ($40) or the stunning 2010 Achaval Ferrer Finca Mirador ($90.)
Nor am I sure the glass will be the best choice for Argentina’s interesting malbec-based blends, like the popular 2009 Clos de los Siete ($20), a mix that also includes merlot, cabernet, and syrah.
On Malbec World Day, I’d better do another taste test.
The Argentine malbec glass will cost $11.
(Elin McCoy writes about wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s interview with Daniel Barenboim and Craig Seligman on books.