Unbroken Pleasures

People standing just outside wine’s circle of appreciation look at the gyrations wine lovers perform as they enjoy the beverage, and they, the outsiders, shake their heads in confusion, irritation, misunderstanding or just plain humor.

All this sipping, sniffing, swirling, maybe even spitting, is embraced by the true believers and not believed by everyone else. What’s all this crap about, and why does it have to be such a big dramatic production? For chrissakes, just drink the wine and don’t make so much fuss.

Maybe the Lovin’ Spoonful captured a similar situation with the memorable John Sebastian lyric, “But It’s like tryin’ to tell a stranger ‘bout rock and roll.”

Let’s just say that the ritual of opening a bottle of wine and tasting the wine is satisfying and necessary in the way it is practiced. I’m thinking here that in the near future I should do a column about why it all makes sense. And I should toss in some no-no’s along the way.

But that is not this column.

Rather, this one is devoted to the importance of using the proper and appropriate glassware. So rather than demystifying the rituals of tasting wine, I’ll be adding to your confusion/enjoyment/disgust. That’s a lot to accomplish in just one feature, but I think I’m up to the task.

While maybe the glassware options have become a bit numerous, there are good and logical reasons for different shapes of glassware. And that reason is you. Yes, your physical attributes and limitations have not only made possible a wide variety of glass shapes, you have made it necessary.

We humans achieve our sense of smell and taste through a complicated relationship between what is behind the face and in our mouth. Add to that the visionary senses and you have a lot of senses working in tandem, with each impression received and formed singly becoming a total experience when considered with the other senses.

Vision is usually the first sense that comes into play when having a glass of wine. The color of the wine gives away its age, and often puts the wine into a type of grape category. Obviously with Champagne and sparkling wine, we are seeking something golden and there have to be lively bubbles in the glass. White and red wines have a wide range of colors, all of which indicate age, or something about the vinification process, or the grape.

The appearance of the wine can’t be clouded or filtered by a glass that does not allow the light to illuminate the beverage properly. We need light to discover some impressions, and usually the wine seen in a good light is the first indicator of whether we have a good wine or something that may end up down the drain.

The second impression of wine, and this is without a doubt the most important one, is smell. While we humans possess in excess of 100,000 taste buds in various places in our mouth, we can truly taste only five sensations. But our sense of smell can discern up to 10,000 different odors. Our sense of smell is adequate, yet not at the level of dogs, which have the ability to sniff out 100 times more aromas than those of us at the top of the food chain.

The point is it’s really our sense of smell that contributes to and drives our “tastes.” Think back to when you have had a head cold. You are all stopped up in the nasal area, and you can’t “taste” a thing. In truth nothing has happened to your sense of taste. What is going on is the inability of aromas to penetrate to your nasal membranes, which are fighting the infection.

Try this little exercise. Close your eyes hard. Hold your nose tightly. Have someone you trust place into your mouth a very pungent candy, like a LifeSaver® or a Sweet Tart®. Now try to discern the flavor. If you can do it, you will be the first human being in the history of the world to do so, and you probably should take out additional insurance on your life. You have a valuable and unique body.

Okay, now back to taste. We can only discern five, as noted earlier. Sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. The last one is a relatively recent addition to the taste roster, and it means meaty or savory. For example, we can actually taste the difference between a raw potato and a potato after it has been baked.

Those five senses are all we can truly taste with our mouth. Any other “tasting sensation” you receive comes through your olfactory abilities, which means your nose is doing most of the “tasting" – with everything you enjoy or don’t.

With all this human ability and anatomy in mind, the design and shape of glassware takes on added importance if we want to fully receive all the sensory aspects of the wine contained within. The glass must be crystal-clear, and it has to feel good on our lips. In most cases the thickness of a glass delivers its own pleasant sensation as it rests on our lips and does not get in the way of what the liquid is delivering to us.

The shape of the glass directs the aroma, known as bouquet, into our noses in the proper amount. An elegant red wine from Burgundy (the place, not the street) is more subtle in aroma than the powerful, overtly alcohol-driven wines from Cognac.

Cognac glasses are deeper and with wider bowls to allow the aromas to reach us in a bigger environment, actually mingling the air around the glass with the bouquet of the wine. Champagnes are delicate, both in aromas and with the bubbles, so those subtler aspects must be more directed over a smaller area to reach our sense of smell. Champagne glasses are narrower than almost any other style.

Then you have the taste. The glass actually plays a big role in how the liquid lands on our palate together with the olfactory experience. We want the wine’s fruit-sugar qualities to come through initially, giving way to subtle flavors in the middle, and finally presenting us with the acidic or tannic qualities. It’s up to the glassware to make all that happen in the best way for our senses of  taste and smell.  

If this sort of thing fascinates or confuses you, I won’t leave you in that lurch. It’s not my style.

On Monday, April 9, from 6 to 8 p.m., Galatoire’s will host Maximilian Riedel, whose family, since the early 1700’s, revolutionized wine appreciation with the design and manufacture of the finest glassware in the world. Riedel stemware from Austria is considered the gold standard of wine glasses, as good as they get, and Galatoire’s is one of the largest purchasers of the line in America. That should surprise no one given the restaurant’s continuous celebration of New Orleans' cuisine and lifestyle. Breakage is a by-product.

Mr. Riedel will provide an overview about tasting wine and why glassware, namely his family’s glassware, is an integral part of the experience around the world. Cost for the seminar, which will include fine wines from Groth in Napa Valley, Talbott in the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chave in France’s Côtes du Rhône, is $100, inclusive.

This is quite an attractive price for a fine wine tasting at Galatoire’s. But wait, as they say on late-night TV, that’s not all. You will leave the tasting with over $175 worth of fine Riedel glassware, an added bonus. It’s a good deal no matter how you look at it. If you want to enjoy fine wine, perfectly served, the cost is reasonable. If you were shopping for glassware, then also here’s a great opportunity. Getting both, at a cheaper price than the glassware alone, is, as we say, lagniappe.

You can reach Galatoire’s to make your reservations, or ask questions, at (504) 525-2021.

The shape, style, and quality of the glass make a difference in the taste of the wine. That is irrefutable. What you have to determine is how much it makes a difference to you. And it would be a shame if you were to sell yourself short.

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