Touch of Glass
So. You have a choice between the jelly glasses your Aunt Melba gave you for Christmas 10 years ago and a set of fragile, hand-blown Riedels costing HK$220 each.
Which is going to deliver the nuances you want from that Te Mata Sauvignon Blanc 2003? Which is going to deliver a tactile, textual sense? How will the tropical fruit aromas emerge, the subtle touch of acidity?
Mark Baulderstone will tell you. And it is obviously not going to be Aunt Melba's set of jelly glasses. Baulderstone is a vice-president of the centuries-old Austrian glassmaking company, whose products win extravagant praise from people such as Robert Parker, the world's most authoritative wine snob ("The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasise enough what a difference they make.'').
The Riedel people are on a mission, albeit a profitable one. Riedel glasses, we are told, are scientifically designed to deliver this kind of wine to the part of the tongue that can taste it best. They market more than 80 styles of extremely expensive glasses. Riedel divides the human tongue into four taste zones. Bitter tastes register at the back, saltiness along the edges, acid inside that, and sweet right out there at the tip.
At Madison's Restaurant and Bar in Hong Kong’s Hutchison House last week, Baulderstone sat a roomful of people down in front of placemats on which five glasses were placed in a semicircle.
The first, labelled the Joker, is the glass that the plonk is liable to come in at your average Spaghetti House. Then, arrayed around the semicircle, are the tall Sauvignon Blanc glass, the slightly bulbous Montrachet glass, the somewhat fat-bellied Bourgogne glass and the tall, full, aristocratic Bordeaux glass.
"The concept that you can put different wines in different-shaped glasses and have the wine taste different is ridiculous,'' Baulderstone says. And then, of course, he goes on to prove it isn't ridiculous at all.
We swirl the Te Mata 2003, sniff it, sip it, find the tactile, textual sense, the tropical fruit, the slight greenness, the balance of fruit to dryness, the acidity. We pour it from the Riedel into the Joker.
Huh? Where'd it all go?
"The shape is responsible for the flow of the wine and consequently where it touches the various taste zones of the tongue,'' the Riedel literature tells us. "The initial point of contact depends on the shape and volume of the glass, the diameter of the rim and its finish (whether it is cut and polished or rolled-edge) as well as the thickness of the crystal.''
Baulderstone goes on to prove definitively with the remaining three glasses just how much a difference you can make, as stunned diners sniff, swirl, gargle and smile.
With the HK$888 dinner from Madison's (smoked orange marinated cod on saffron apple compote, porcini and frog legs stewed with pesto cream sauce in vol au vent with white asparagus, char-grilled New Zealand lamb loin with red wine risotto, trio of chocolate mousse with sesame and mango coriander sauce) come four free Riedel crystal glasses - one of each type.
And, presumably, the diners rush off to the Town House, a posh glass shop in the Prince's Building, to complete the set. A Town House sales assistant put the price of a set of four of each at HK$885. It's customary to buy glasses in sets of eight. Thus, for four sets of seven glasses - since you already have the one Baulderstone gave you to get started - you would spend HK$6,195.
Baulderstone has been doing two of what he calls glass tastings - not wine tastings - per day in Hong Kong, which, he says, has become his second-most important market in Asia after Australia.
So does every different vintage take a different glass? There's no use going overboard, Baulderstone said. He thinks probably 10 different kinds of glasses would be plenty for the well-equipped oenophile.
Safely home with your theoretical purchase of HK$17,700 worth of glasses, then "as you put your wine glass to your lips, your taste buds are on alert. Once the tongue is in contact with the wine, three messages are transmitted at the same time: temperature, texture and taste," Riedel tells us. "It is the glass shape which is responsible for balance and harmony of flavours. Riedel was first to discover the concept: The content commands the shape!"
Unfortunately, according to a flock of scientific literature, this is a lot of hoot and boo. "Electrophysical studies, whereby electrical activity of taste receptors is measured in the presence of taste stimuli . . . show that the vast majority of taste receptors fire electrical signals, and hence elicit a taste sensation, in the presence of all the basic tastes," writes Richard Gawel in Aromadictionary, an Australian online publication dealing with wine aromas.
Nor is Gawel alone. There appears to be a significant body of evidence that the famed tongue map is largely nonsense, and the tongue is instead a trackless waste.
So what's happening?
Unlike Riedel peddlers in the United States, who were featured in an August 2004 Gourmet magazine article, Baulderstone doesn't demand that we study the Taste Zones of the Tongue before us on our placemats. Wine tasting, he says, is about 70% olfactory. Thus the ability to poke one's nose into the glass is the big thing. And, he acknowledges, the Joker - the stemmed tumbler from the Spaghetti House - doesn't allow that. Not for nothing is it called the Joker.
Beyond that, if you're well-heeled enough to want to spend HK$17,700 on Baulderstone's 10 sets of glasses, go ahead and do it. They are nice to look at, they are lovely to hold in your hand, they give the wine a nice swish as you swirl. They will knock the socks off your dinner guests. They also are enormously fragile - so fragile that Baulderstone gives lessons on how you or your maid should hold them when they are being washed.
The replacement industry has to be extremely profitable. So buy some. Just make sure you can get your nose into the glass before you sip.
This is a classic Reese Deveaux column first published in the Weekend Standard