Georg Riedel entertains

The other week I was lucky enough to enjoy an amazing experience. My trip around the New York Finger Lakes wine region culminated in the Finger Lakes Wine Festival at Watkins Glen.

I had no idea what to expect and was half thinking that I would rather stay in bed, but I am so glad that I didn’t.

appreciative crowds at Watkins Glen

For a start the scale of the event was incredible, there were huge areas with wine tents, food tents, beer, ice cream, gifts – you name it – and the people there were really having a good time. This being America the music was pretty good too – I was very taken with Strat Cat Willy and his blues band.

Strat Cat Willy (in the straw hat)

It was a very hot day and luckily for me I was a VIP guest with entry to the cool and luxurious press enclosure and cookery demonstration stand. I had been half aware that we were invited to attend the Riedel Experience, but was not really convinced that I would go – until on arriving I discovered that far from being a tasting with some Riedel glasses this was a seminar conducted by Georg Riedel himself. It was one of his famous Sensory Exploration sessions – how could I miss out on seeing this legendary wine trade figure in person?

For those of you who are unaware of Georg Riedel and Riedel glasses a few words of explanation will be needed:

Riedel is an Austrian glass making company that has been owned and run by the Riedel family for 11 generations – since 1756. However it was the 9th generation Claus Josef Riedel who really put the company on the map as ‘the wine glass company’. It was he who created the concept of individual glasses for specific wines. The theory being that each wine attacks the palate and senses in a unique way and that the glass should be designed to enhance those sensations.

It was his son, Georg, though who really took the concept forward and set the wine world alight with it. Acceptance of the idea and use of his glasses has spread everywhere over my time in the wine trade.

In the United States acceptance of Riedel was confirmed by Robert Parker Junior championing their cause: ‘The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by Riedel. The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.’ (Quelle: Robert M. Parker, Jr. The Wine Advocate)

I have always been struck by the beauty of Riedel glasses, they are large and imposing and most of them have a lovely shape that makes them attractive and dramatic on any table. However, aesthetics apart I have never been totally convinced by the theory and have long clung to the belief that as long the glass is good, then a glass is a glass.

Wine glass use varies enormously the world over. Paris goblets are still widely used in the UK and traditionally the Spanish eschew stemware in favour of tumblers. The majority of wine drinkers would avoid plastic except as the vessel of last resort, but surely most of us believe that it is the liquid that counts and not what you drink it from.

Certainly up to a point I have believed that. Yes I want a good glass, but surely that is enough? To that end I have used ISO tasting glasses to drink from for the best part of twenty years now and have hundreds of the things. Perhaps I am getting fussier in my old age though, as recently I have been getting the distinct feeling that these glasses show a wine’s faults more clearly than its  pleasures. So, I have been gradually turning to my mixed collection of (hopefully) better glasses – some large ordinary claret glasses and (definitely better) a mixed bag of Riedels and Riedel look-alikes – when I can be bothered to wash them up that is.

So I was very pleased to get the chance to experience Riedel glasses under the tuition of Georg Riedel himself – alright, the clincher was that we received a set of four Riedel Vinum XL glasses free. The problem then became how to get these huge glasses across the Atlantic!

It was a wonderful presentation, Georg is a superb showman with a great line in patter and just enjoying the performance was reward enough frankly – almost his first words made me sit up and take notice.

‘I am a tool maker’, he said. This was suitably humble and pretty much the only modest note in the whole event, but it was interesting – I had never thought of glasses as tools, but  he is right, they are the tools of my trade. By using cheap glasses all my working career I have been like the photographer trying to save money on film!

You see how he draws you in, suddenly you want to spend a fortune on glasses!

Georg Riedel (left) watching Fred Frank talking about his Riesling

We were presented with a mat upon which were four Riedel glasses, an ordinary wine glass and a plastic beaker.

The Riedels were the Vinum XL range Riesling Grand Cru, Montrachet (Chardonnay), Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and each contained a suitable wine: a Finger Lakes Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

First off we nosed the Riesling, it had delicate yet lifted aromas. Georg instructed us to pour it into the plastic beaker – the aroma completely disappeared – yet remained powerful in the now empty Riedel glass!

The next stage was to pour the Riesling into the ordinary glass, which he called the Joker – again it was subdued with little or no fruit coming through.

Poured back into the Riedel Riesling Grand Cru the wine had a bright, lively aroma and the palate was far superior too.

Georg Riedel in full flow

We did this for all the four wines and the Riedel glasses really made them smell and taste good. It has to be the correct glass however, when we poured the Riesling into the Chardonnay glass the wine lost everything that made it attractive, likewise the Chardonnay was dull in the Riesling glass. Similarly the Cabernet lost all its fruit in the Pinot glass and when poured into the Cabernet glass the Pinot seemed to become harsh, thin and acidic.

In the correct glass however the Pinot Noir was an amazing experience, firstly the wine was very good indeed, I had visited the estate two days before and been hugely impressed. Then it just came alive in the Riedel glass in the most wonderful and seamless way – far better than at the winery in more ordinary glasses.

I truthfully cannot say how much of this is true, a great presenter can put thoughts in the audience’s head – intentionally or unintentionally – so a little part of my brain was saying that this was snake oil selling, but, but…….?

So, I am almost convinced. Is it a scientific thing as Georg kept saying, does the glass point the wine to a specific place in the mouth? Or is it simply that the glasses are such good quality? I am half tempted to think that, but then the wines would surely taste great in all the glasses, wouldn’t they?

But why would it matter where the wine arrives in your mouth, there is plenty of evidence that says your brain doesn’t care where the flavour comes from, but will process it anyway – read this for instance.

So, the truth of the matter aside there are practical matters to contend with; the cost, cleaning and storage of these glasses. The Vinum XL range are not the most expensive by any means, but are around £30 a glass. If I limited myself to the four here and just six of each, that is £720 and I am a great believer in spending money on wine rather than wine accoutrements.

Also these glasses are so tall that they do not fit an ordinary dishwasher and I hate hand washing glasses – and where on earth would I put them?

The fact that I am having these thoughts shows what objects of desire Riedel glasses are though, like Aston Martins, Apple Macs and B&O, I am not sure that I always need them, but I really, really want them.

5 thoughts on “Georg Riedel entertains

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  3. Ahhh George My first initiation into his presentation skills also. He was arrogant, rude (as only you can be to an american audience) dismissive and evasive. I wanted to leave after 10 minutes. But! Most of what the very stylised pour into and then again into anoher glass certainly changed your perceptions. Except [for me the Rieslng and Chardonnay interchange. Neither smelled or tasted as good after being moved from glass to glass. So. Was he right – or just a wee bit too much of smoke and mirrors. I am not sure. I am less inclined to believe ….

    • Thanks Angela, I agree with a lot of that and in reality do not know what to believe. The wines did change and were mostly better in his glasses, but how can our senses really care how a liquid enters the mouth? On the other hand chocolate biscuits do taste different upside down from the right way up! So, I need to do more research I think! Thanks again

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