Stemware Showdown

wine glasses for tasting

If you pay attention to stemware, you’ve likely heard of Riedel, the Austrian producer of fine crystal. Even if you don’t pay attention to glassware, you’ve most likely used a Riedel glass in a winery tasting room or restaurant. Riedel seems to dominate the high-end stemware market, producing nearly as many glasses as there are varieties of grapes, across various product lines geared to different consumers (and different levels of price sensitivity).

It wasn’t until I met a certain “dirty” winemaker that I heard of Zalto, a much smaller Austrian producer of fine crystal that traces its lineage back to Venice.

Since then, I’ve seen them more and more, especially among the ranks of the young(er) and rowdy wine community we’ve associated with. However, they seem to be increasing in popularity among the culinary community in general. I most recently sighted them at Quince.

But is it possible that a small, family-owned producer of lead-free, artisanal, hand-blown stemware could best the venerable Riedel? This was the subject of our recent pseudo-scientific Saturday evening stemware study. People blind taste wine all the time, so we figured why not blind taste stemware? Wouldn’t you know by the feel of the glass which you were tasting from? Good question. Not if you do it this way. Pour two (or more) glasses of identical wine (the wine is the “control” in this experiment). Close your eyes (or wear a blindfold) and have a partner hold each glass to your lips. You don’t touch the glass and you don’t see the glass, so you’re free to concentrate on tasting. Yes, it looks weird and yes, it feels awkward, but you are doing this for science.

The results in our small study were unanimous and clear. We both preferred the Zalto glass to the Riedel Sommeliers glass. The Zalto rim is insanely thin. It seems like there is nothing between you and the wine. It seems to target the wine onto the palate in a way that allows you to perceive it more intensely and in a more nuanced way. In contrast, the Riedel seemed to direct the wine over the rim, launching it onto the palate such that you could perceive that it gained air and force in the process. I’ve heard the Zaltos described as “amplifying” the wine, but my sense is that they provide the purest expression of the wine without any aerodynamic intervention.

Since our blind tasting, we’ve played with the Zalto glasses more, including adding a Universal to the mix. This glass really does work wonderfully for most wines. We’ve tried a lot of wines out of it, and with few exceptions, they show beautifully. The Zalto shows the true character of the wine, so it will also accentuate the negative characteristics.

The drawbacks are price (around $65/stem vs. $25/stem for Riedel Vinum, but they did outperform the Sommeliers series glasses that run 2X the price of the Zalto) and they fragile. The glasses balance beautifully in the hand, but they are feather-light and feel almost flexible.

With appropriate care, these are phenomenal glasses. I see no need to have a collection of them. Given the proven versatility of the Universal glass, it would replace a lot of varietal-specific glasses in the enthusiast’s selection. If you are passionate about Burgundy or Bordeaux varietals, add a pair of those and you’d be set.

Note: Sadly, Zalto did not provide sample glasses for our review or endorsement. All of the glasses studied were from our personal collection.


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