Do fancy glasses improve the flavor of wine?
My wine-snob friends think that the Dixie cups I serve wine in destroy its flavor. Do fancy glasses actually improve the flavor of wine? What if I serve a cabernet in a chardonnay glass — is it just wrong? And do I really need to let wine breathe before I pass the bottle?
Like most other pursuits that provide an opportunity for snobbery, wine appreciation is something that can easily be made to seem ridiculous. Just as there are people who own stereo systems capable of producing sound at a level of detail that no one of our species can possibly appreciate, there are people who feel that only a barnyard animal would consider drinking wine from anything but a crystal glass of a shape optimized for the specific grapes involved. Frankly, these aren't the kind of people I tend to do my own wine drinking with, and I've found that a few well-timed belches will typically keep them at a suitable distance. But it must be conceded: a good wine often has a lot of subtle things going on flavorwise that reward attention paid to how it's served, and there's reason to think that the shape of the glass may affect how we taste what's inside.
Some wine chemistry basics: Polyphenols are a type of aromatic compound found in the various parts of plants; wines get a lot of their flavor (and, for reds, their antioxidant properties) from a subset of these compounds known as flavonoids. (You're thinking: How old was the scientist who came up with this name — ten? Actually, the flavo- part has nothing to do with flavor, but rather with the color yellow: many flavonoids are plant pigments.) The ones we're most concerned with here are tannins, present in grape skins, seeds, and stems. Red wines, unlike white, are fermented with the skins and seeds left in, and red grape varieties are higher in tannins than the white ones to begin with, so there're considerably more tannins in reds than in whites. If you've ever sipped a red wine and gotten a puckery feeling, that's tannin reacting with the protein in your saliva — it's the same effect that gives an oversteeped cup of tea its astringent quality.
Much of the way a wine smells and tastes is the result of the ongoing interaction between flavonoids and oxygen. Tannins are natural preservatives (they're used in tanning animal hides), and so wines with higher tannin content can be designed for the long haul: given plenty of time to age, tannins can oxidize gradually to create a richness of flavor generally unobtainable in the younger stuff. Conversely, most white wines go bad after maybe a decade.
When planning to drink a relatively tannic wine while it's still young — a cabernet sauvignon, a Bordeaux, a merlot — you might think about letting it breathe, to dial back those tannins a bit. Simply opening the bottle a few minutes before serving won't cut it, as not enough oxygen gets into the act. What you really want to do is pour it into a decanter and let it stand for maybe half an hour, if you can manage it. And decanting older wines has the added benefit of screening out any sediment, which looks grubby and tastes lousy. There are plenty of less tannic reds that don't need to breathe, though (pinot noirs, burgundies, Beaujolais), and really old wines won't benefit from aeration at all — their flavors start fading rapidly upon exposure to air, so drink up right away. A few dry white wines taste better with a little aeration, but mainly you just want to leave whites in the bottle and let them keep cold.
OK, OK, the glasses. While it's undeniable that a lot of the different-glasses-for-different-wines shtick is really about visual appeal, ceremony, etc, and that a good wine will likely taste just fine served in a jelly jar, it's also true that the various glass shapes have evolved with an eye toward the liquid-to-oxygen interface issues discussed above. If you're looking to upgrade your wine-drinking experience and you've got the shelf space to spare, keeping a few basic models around couldn't hurt. For most reds, you want a largish, balloon-shaped glass: the girth maximizes the surface area of wine exposed to the air, and it's easy to swirl the contents around and savor the bouquet (if you go in for such things); a narrower mouth concentrates said aroma toward the nose. Since aeration isn't much of an issue for whites, they go in a smaller glass, which helps retain the chill. Throw in some champagne flutes (or newer juice-style champagne glasses, if you're a modernist), and you're set. You can get much, much more elaborate with the specialized stemware if you want, of course, but don't expect the nonsnobs to notice or care.