If the only purpose of a wine glass is to keep the wine from spilling, then why don't we use tumblers or coffee mugs to drink our wine?
It's not that simple, of course. The modern wine glass has developed over centuries as the most practical way to show wine at its best.
A good wine glass should be large enough to hold a reasonable serving of wine (three to five ounces) with enough space left to swirl and aerate the wine to help open up its aromas.
It should be "tulip" shaped, a large bowl with slightly inward curving edges at the top, to help hold the aromas in the glass so you can sniff them.
It will normally have a stem to hold it by, a tradition based on the idea of keeping your hands and fingers off the bowl, both to avoid greasy fingerprints and to keep your hands from warming the wine.
It should be of clear glass or crystal, of course; colored or opaque glass would keep you from enjoying the natural color of the wine.
And, although this is not critical, most people find that very thin glass conveys a sense of luxury and elegance that isn't present with a thick, heavy wine glass.
Just for fun, I recently auditioned a set of four expensive crystal glasses from Riedel Crystal, trying a good Rioja (notes below) and an inexpensive French white wine from each of four different glasses purportedly designed to showcase, respectively, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux and Burgundy. (The glasses are pictured above in our HTML edition; plain-text subscribers may click to the picture at www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/glasses.shtml.)
Frankly, I couldn't detect a huge difference in the way each of the glasses presented either wine. In the case of both wines, the glass that seemed to show off the aromas and flavors best was the large, tall "Bordeaux" glass - third from left in the picture - an oversize vessel that if filled to the top would hold 20 ounces of wine. If you're looking for a classy glass that will show off your wine at its best, the Riedel "Bordeaux" or any tall, large-bowled, high-quality glass of this general size and shape should serve you well. Similar glassware, at a lower price, is available from a number of producers including Mikasa and Spiegelau.
This article was featured in the Jan. 24, 2000 edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor.