Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Riedel Masterclass with Georg J. Riedel

Georg J. Riedel & Simon Devlin
On 20 February 2012, thanks to my good friend Simon Devlin (purveyor of fine cigars, gentlemanly accoutrements and of course Riedel glasses and decanters), I had the privilege of attending an industry-only red wine masterclass conducted by Georg J. Riedel himself, the Austrian owner and head of the Riedel glassware empire.  Attendees comprised sommeliers, restaurateurs, wine merchants and retailers.  And me …

The masterclass focused on the 3 main red wine varietals: pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.  I sat down to an array of 3 Riedel glasses, 3 plastic cups (each full of one of the red wine varietals), a bottle of water, and a Lindt Lindor chocolate ball.  Most interesting indeed.

Georg insisted that he was not a wine expert, and instead described himself as being in the business of “delivering wine”, with the glass being the tool by which he delivers the wine directly into our mouths.  In this regard, it isn’t a black art – science is paramount – everything from the size of the aromatic molecules (what’s the difference between the smell of chicken shit and the aroma of rose petals? The size of the molecules!) to the balance of sweetness and acidity of a given wine varietal.

Georg also provided contextual information as the masterclass continued:

  • 3 of the 5 senses are located in the palate.
  • The 3 key parameters of a wine glass are size, shape and rim diameter.
  • Size accentuates the details of the aromas.  Why do you swirl the wine in a glass?  To increase its surface area to encourage evaporation!  A larger size means a greater surface area for evaporation; and the greater the surface area available, the greater the evaporation and more concentrated the bouquet.
  • Shape holds in the scent molecules that give you the bouquet of the wine.
  • Rim diameter regulates where the wine first ends up on your palate – a narrower rim diameter pushes the flow to the back of the palate.
  • Red wine should be lightly chilled when served in Australia.  21°C may be room temperature, but this still isn’t cold enough.  Temperature is important, because it affects the aroma. A lower temperature reduces evaporation and reduces the evidence of alcohol, and in mature red wine, it also de-emphasises the jammy components.
  • Every wine has a primary and secondary aroma.  For example, a pinot noir’s primary aroma is typically reminiscent of cherries and redcurrants, while its secondary aroma is of rose petals and soft spices.

Water-tasting: a warm up for the palate

He then provided some sensory context with a water tasting from the 3 different wine glasses before us as a warm up for the palate.  Because water is tasteless and odourless, our sense of touch is heightened, so we feel the contact with the cool water more keenly and understand how gravity takes it around the inside of the mouth and around the tongue and palate.

The flow of water into the mouth is of course an indication of what the glass does when it actually delivers wine:

  • The pinot glass, with its out-turned rim, almost dumps the liquid in the front of your mouth, onto the inside of the bottom lip, between the tongue and lower teeth.
  • The shiraz glass deposits the liquid onto the rear of the tongue
  • The cabernet sauvignon glass evenly floods the entire mouth at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been patient or curious enough to do this at home, even though I’ve got a selection of Riedel glasses sitting around in my kitchen cabinet.  But I would thoroughly recommend it for the illumination it provided.

It was interesting to note that the majority of attendees, including me, preferred the cabernet sauvignon glass when drinking water.  It’s strange isn’t it, since water is water, regardless of what glass you drink it from?  Well, this was only the beginning of the journey.

Tasting the wines

After all this preparation, we finally got down to tasting the wines.  Georg got us sipping the lightly chilled wines directly from the plastic cups – even from a plastic cup, you could tell that these were quality, well-made wines.

He then declared that if a restaurant attempted to serve him wine in the wrong glass, he would rather drink it from a plastic cup instead, because the cup would have a neutral impact on the aroma and delivery of the wine, whereas the wrong choice of glass will have a dramatically negative impact.  I was slightly bemused at this stage – how could this be, since the wine is the same wine regardless of which glass you drink it from?  Well, my eyes were about to be opened as it was now time to start drinking from the glasses.  Georg proferred the following advice: just let gravity take the wine naturally around your mouth and follow the sensations and flavours as they develop.

My more detailed tasting notes are found below in the appendix, if that is something which interests you.  Otherwise, here’s the summary:

Pinot Noir: This Mornington Peninsula pinot noir, whose winemaker is also a Master of Wine, was sublime when “delivered” from the pinot noir glass.  But not so from the other glass – particularly from the cabernet sauvignon glasses, where the primary aromas are undetectable and the taste is completely dominated by sour acidity.

Shiraz: The Barossa Valley shiraz on the other hand clearly shone through when drunk from the shiraz glass – perfectly balanced and delicious.  The pinot noir glass merely seems to mute the aromas and flavours, although it accentuates the sweet fruits over the acidity – if you like your wines sweet, that’s fine, but it was overbalanced in favour of sweetness.  On the other hand, the cabernet sauvignon glass almost made this great shiraz difficult to enjoy, delivering a one-dimensional, lemony flavour of acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon: The Margaret River cabernet sauvignon was amazingly complex, balanced and delicious when imbibed from the cabernet sauvignon glass – a gradual symphonic evolution of flavours and sensations balanced by fresh, crisp acidity.  But when taken from the pinot noir glass, it was hard to pick the aroma at all, and the flavour was over-dominated by acidity all the way through.  The shiraz glass on the other hand appeared to strike a compromise between the other two glasses.

This led to a few revelations:

  • The pinot noir glass makes a good pinot utterly sublime, but it also lives happily with a shiraz although it does accentuate the sweet fruits at the expense of the acidity, muting the crispness of the finish that should have followed.
  • The shiraz glass is a “compromise glass”.  It neither enhances nor detracts materially from non-shiraz wines which it delivers into your mouth.  It does however make a great shiraz even more amazing.
  • The cabernet sauvignon glass, as Georg described it, is his “troublemaker glass”.  It is designed to enhance Bordeaux style wines – cabernet sauvignons and merlots.  But it doesn’t take well to pinot noir or shiraz, where it enhances the acidity to the point of overbalancing the experience in favour of a burst of sour lemon.


Georg then asked the question: why do we decant wines?  Well, I have heard many debates over the two schools of thought, but Georg argued that both are valid for different reasons:

  • You decant young wines to soften them and make them easier to drink.  His scientific explanation was that decanting expels preservatives (CO2) in the wine.  CO2 tastes sour and astringent.  So decanting changes the flavour of the wine.  It speeds up the oxidation process and makes the wine softer in a shorter time.  He then went on to demonstrate this by swirling the wine in a decanter and putting his microphone to the mouth of the decanter – a distinctive fizzing sound of gas escaping was clearly heard!
  • You decant old wines to remove the sediment from them – this sediment is in fact crystallised tannins, so the wines are already soft and shouldn’t be left to stand for too long, lest they oxidise further and tip over the precipice.

Wine and food

To finish, we had a bit of fun – one bite out of the chocolate followed by a sip of the Margaret River cabernet sauvignon from the cabernet sauvignon glass.  What a deliciously complementary marrying of the flavours!  As Georg described it, “a meeting of the cacao and cassis”.

On the other hand, when another bite of the chocolate was followed up with a sip of the same wine from the pinot noir glass, “the cacao misses the cassis”.

It was truly illuminating to experience first-hand how the choice of glassware can affect not only your enjoyment of the wine for better or worse, but also your enjoyment of the accompanying food!

So if you are dining in a restaurant and notice this fellow at the other table staring strangely at the wine glasses while browsing through the wine list, it may well be me …

APPENDIX: Glass tasting notes

Instead of the usual approach of trying to taste the wine, this time I’m trying to identify the differences between the aroma and taste sensations which each of the 3 glasses elicits from each varietal.

Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula)

Pinot Noir glass (aroma):  An emphasis on the primary aroma of cherries and redcurrants, underlaid by the subtler yet present secondary aroma of rose petals and soft spices.
Pinot Noir glass (taste): Coolness, gradual growth in light crispness, then candied (spiced) red and dark berry flavours slowly develop and softly envelop the tongue and palate.

Shiraz glass (aroma): A compromise between the pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon glasses – fruits and spices are present, as well as earthiness.
Shiraz glass (taste): Again a compromise: fruit is dominant up front and continues to dominate through to the tip of the tongue.

Cabernet Sauvignon glass (aroma): The primary aromas are non-existent, while the secondary aromas are accentuated.
Cabernet Sauvignon glass (taste):  Heightens the acidity (sourness) of the wine which dominates the other flavours which come in later but continually struggle to be noticed.

Shiraz (Barossa Valley)

Pinot Noir glass (aroma): a muted version of the nose from the shiraz glass
Pinot Noir glass (taste): sweet vanilla fruit is more dominant, and remains dominant.

Shiraz glass (aroma): strong candied aroma.
Shiraz glass (taste): Soft, creamy texture on tasting. Long development, sweet, fruity, crisp but still soft.

Cabernet Sauvignon glass (aroma): only a faint aroma.
Cabernet Sauvignon glass (taste): taste is one-dimensional, only dominating lemony acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River)

Pinot Noir glass (aroma): hard to pick an aroma at all, although some blackcurrant comes through.
Pinot Noir glass (taste):  overwhelming lemony acidity cuts off the initial expression of fruit before it can develop.

Shiraz glass (aroma): a muted version of the aroma from the cabernet sauvignon glass.
Shiraz glass (taste): nothing wrong with the taste, but it is harder to pick all of the subtle complexities of this quality wine when compared to a sip from the next glass.

Cabernet Sauvignon glass (aroma): rich blackcurrant-y cassis and hints of leafy mint.
Cabernet Sauvignon glass (taste): opens up all of the facets of the CS.  Soft beginning, gradual buildup of fruit, cassis, leaf, coffee, chocolate, with balanced crisp acidity.

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