Does Shape Really Matter?

wine glasses

“In double blind tests that eliminate any chance that the subject would know the shape of the glass, there is absolutely zero detectable difference between glasses.” I recently read this quote in Seth Godin’s book, All Marketers are Liars, and I was shocked. I didn’t know the science behind why we used different glasses for different wines, but I did it because that was the expectation: smaller bowl for white wine, bigger bowl for red wine and flutes for sparkling. Godin proceeds to state that “a $1 glass and a $20 glass deliver precisely the same impact on the wine: none.” 

As I was developing the concept for Grape Juice Mom and enforcing my beliefs that wine tasting and drinking does not need to be a snooty experience, I quoted Godin and shared these results while enjoying wine. I knew one of these days, I would look further into the research in hopes of validating Godin’s information and reassuring my friends and followers that the type and shape of glass in which you drink wine is irrelevant!

Well, after reading many articles and research, I’m not so sure that I believe Godin’s declaration. I have had a hard time finding the exact study that he references but I have found several studies that conflict his statement – and they seem fairly logical. So here’s what I’ve found:

  • The size of the opening of a glass is extremely relevant to the smelling experience of a wine. A significant factor to the glass opening size is the ratio between the angle of the glass and the opening. If the sides of the glass are straight, the olfactory experience will be different than if the sides are angled inward. In Ronald S. Jackson’s Wine Tasting, a Professional Handbook, he relates the tasting experience per glass to four functions: 
    • (1) the surface area of the wine in the glass
    • (2) the surface area of the wine adhering to the sides of the glass following swirling
    • (3) volume of headspace gas in the glass above the wine
    • (4) diameter of the mouth of the glass
  • Professor Kohji Mitsubayashi at the Institute of Biomaterials and Bioengineering at Tokyo Medical and Dental University depicted the escape of alcohol gasses from three different glasses. As depicted below, the ethanol vaporizing (represented in red) is most concentrated around the rim of the glass – which supports why it is appropriate to smell a wine by actually putting your nose into the glass versus smelling at the rim. Though I have not seen a study that shows this type of image for various types of wine glasses, I would imagine that the alcohol output varies by the angle between the sides and the opening of the wine glass.

    wine tasting glass alcohol
    Credit: via Mitsubayashi Lab/Tokyo Medical and Dental University/Institute of Buimaterials and Bioengineering. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/riedel-design-wine-glasses/index.html.
  • You may be thinking: “Okay, this seems compelling on smell, but how does it effect taste.” We already know that if either taste or smell is effected, so is the other. For example, when we are congested and have a hard time smelling, flavors do not seem as robust or distinct. When it comes to the actual science, Brainfacts.org explains “taste and smell are separate senses with their own receptor organs, yet they are intimately entwined.”
  • In the Forbes article, “Why the Shape of a Glass Shapes the Taste of Your Wine” by Tom Mullen, Mullen explains that the shape of the glass also effects the angle and speed in which wine hits your palate when consumed. He explains that glasses with wider rims require one to lower their head and tilt the glass up, whereas a Champagne flute requires one to raise their head back while raising the glass. 

Here’s my conclusion: I believe that wine glass shape effects the smell and taste of a wine. I also believe that there is an elegance and enjoyment from having beautifully angled glasses of varying shapes – not that you have to spend exorbitant amounts of money on these glasses. I also believe there are certain functions with different glasses that are considered a faux-pas among the snootiest of wine drinkers. For example, stemless glasses. Holding the bowl of the glass is often a concern with warming the wine inside. But you know what? With kids, when a stemless glass gets knocked over on the counter, it rarely breaks – so sometimes I’m more concerned with that than whether I’m warming the wine – which I won’t be drinking anyway if it’s knocked over. 

I think you should drink from the glass that you enjoy drinking from most. If it makes you feel sophisticated and classy to drink from an expensive Reidel glass, go for it! But I won’t judge you if you prefer to pour your wine from the box into a stemless glass. Cheers!

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