Riedel 101: Grape Varietal Specific Glassware

We're going back to basics. Read our interview with Riedel Australia and New Zealand's Managing Director Mark Baulderstone about the philosophy behind our products and how they are designed. by Erin Ogilvie

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Mark Baulderstone has been championing Riedel's varietal specific philosophy since 1995, and has hosted their icnoic Sensory Workshops to industry and consumers across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

When asked how many people he thinks he has educated in his career, he laughs and shrugs. "I'd have no idea... maybe ten thousand?!"


 

This is probably the question you get asked most of all so let's get straight to it: do you really need different glasses for different wines?

In a word: yes. We know as an indisputable fact that Riedel glasses highlight and showcase the best attributes of grape varietals, and wine becomes something that you buy based on variety. Customers always look for similarities in wines that they’ve enjoyed in the past, and the DNA of the grape varietal is the number one link behind that, not brands or regions. It’s the key.

When you say, people look for variety, you’re talking about going into a bottle shop or saying to a sommelier, “I really love Marlborough Chardonnay, what else can you recommend?”

Exactly. And they might say, “Have you tried a Chardonnay from the Central Otago?” They’re not going to say, “Great, have you tried Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc?” Because they’re completely different animals. You’ve put an emphasis on the varietal; you haven’t just said, “I like all wines from the Yarra Valley.”

All wine is consumed for enjoyment purposes, and if the glass enhances that and you get better enjoyment, why wouldn’t you use the right glass? It just makes sense.

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How are varietal specific glasses designed?

Riedel is completely unique in this process, and it’s one that we created and only we use. 

We shape by trial and error. We conduct workshops around the world where we engage with winemakers, sommeliers, and experts, for the purpose of making glasses compete against each other. We look at one wine in lots of different shapes of glasses in a panel format, not just Riedel, and it’s a competition. There has to be a consensus on which glass performs the best.

As these are experts, there is occasionally one left of centre result, but nine out of ten times you find parallels in the way that they think the varietals look in the glass.

How many people are usually in the panel, and how many glasses do you compare?

It depends on lots of factors. We’ve had panels around 24 people, which is probably a bit much as each person has anywhere up to 20 glasses, so there’s a lot going on. Our preference is around 12.

The number of glasses we use depends on the varietal and what we’re trying to achieve. For example, we recently did a workshop in Marlborough for our new Sauvignon Blanc glass, and used 17 different glasses.

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And did you only do this workshop once?

No, we do it multiple times, on multiple occasions, with different panels and different wines. We want to look at different styles of the same varietal so our information is as broad as possible, and we know that different people give different results.

But it’s interesting because we always end up with the same glasses [performing best]. Why? Because the DNA does not change! Winemakers don’t make Sauvignon Blanc to look like Riesling, or Chardonnay, because consumers want Sauvignon Blanc that looks like Sauvignon Blanc. The DNA is the critical part; the “mould” of what the varietal is, determines the shape and size of the glass.

You already have a Sauvignon Blanc glass in the range, so why make another?

Because the producers in Marlborough hounded me for two years, asking us to come back! Georg Riedel and I first made the trip to Marlborough for the workshops in 1997, and they said the style has changed over the past 20 years.

Coincidentally, while I was conducting tastings in New Zealand, Maximilian Riedel was conducting tastings in Italy, looking at Sauvignon Blanc from different regions in Italy and in Europe. We had no idea the other was doing it, but when we overlayed the results we ended up with very similar information.

Interestingly, and I’m very proud to say this, the Vinum glass that we produced back in 1997 was one of the most standout, high performing glasses. It wasn’t the winner on the day but, from recollection, it was second or third.

So it still works.

It still works, and is still relevant. This is the level where I say that we’re really splitting hairs. One winemaker, who makes wine technically, might see it completely differently to another, who makes wine for the consumer, but they should both contribute to the end result. We’ve learnt a lot more about our glasses in the past 20 years, like the differentiation between Old World and New World. So now we offer both Old and New World glasses in our modern range Veritas because we believe both are relevant in a modern context.

We’re really talking about subtleties and nuances, but the consumer doesn’t need to see it to this level. It simply comes down to the level of energy, effort and attention that goes into the design of one glass. It’s a process that we labour over, so the consumer can trust us.

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Riedel has an enormous range. What would you recommend to a wine lover starting their glass collection?

Choose a small collection of glasses based around the varietals you love. I’d recommend starting with three varietals, maybe one white and two reds, and that’ll be enough to keep you going until you’re ready to learn about something else. 

The problem with wine education is that there are so many different varietals that, if you go too broad, you never really learn much about anything. Choose some varietals you already know and spend a few months on those, from different winemakers, different regions, and different vintages. It’s a great way to learn what you do and don’t like, and start to look at the nuances and characters that these wines offer.

Of course, you also need to decide whether, if you’re having large dinner parties, you’re prepared for everyone to share in that experience, or if it’s just for you and your partner, or just for yourself.

What’s the easiest way for people to know what glass they should be using, based on the varietals they like?

There’s two ways: first of all, the glass is always named after the varietal, like Veritas Cabernet or Veritas Riesling. We also have an app that you can download that will give you this information.

The only question then comes to which range you choose, and this would be based around budget. From a varietal perspective, we have everything from $25 and above, per piece. There are choices that are not going to break the bank, so pick a glass you’re comfortable with and use it every day. Well, every day you’re drinking wine, which if you’re like me …