On the morning of Friday, August 22 the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance hosted a closed tasting of winemakers and critics at Sheldrake Point Vineyards on Cayuga Lake to determine which Riedel glass best exhibited the flavors and nuances of Finger Lakes Riesling.
Later that day, George Riedel continued his tour of the Finger Lakes with a public tasting at Glenora on Seneca Lake to see whether a mixture of wine enthusiasts and reporters -- including me -- would come to the same conclusion as the group of winemakers.
I approached this public tasting with an open mind, having never compared different Riedel glasses while drinking the same wine. I left with a mixed opinion but a new appreciation for the importance of stemware as part of the enjoyment of wine.
George Riedel opened the event with a summary of why he was in the Finger Lakes, a region that he feels is similar to the Riesling-producing regions of Europe. In a line that will be oft repeated by those in attendance, Riedel joked that "it is easier to find wine than gas" in the Finger Lakes, which is in fact quite true. Overall, George Riedel made the audience feel as if he saw a great deal of potential in the rural but dynamic and emerging Finger Lakes wine scene.
The tasting, which Riedel led the group through sniff by sniff and sip by sip, was relatively simple. Before each participant were seven glasses laid out on a Riedel tasting mat, pre-arranged by the Riedel staff. The first glass, on the left, was a small plastic cup. The rest were Riedel stems of various shapes and volumes spread out like a fan and located on their specific circles within the paper mat.
We tasted three different wines, and after each tasting the audience voted for their favorite glass which was the one that brought out the best flavors and nuances of the wine. The Rieslings, tasted in order, were the 2006 Knapp Reserve, the 2006 Glenora and the 2006 Sheldrake Point.
As the tasting progressed, I could detect through rounds of sniffing and tasting the qualities that the different glasses brought out in the wines. Some glasses provided more acidity, while others highlighted fruit, and some others minerality. In the case of each wine, the glass that seemed to curry the most favor with the participants was the one that balanced all of these elements.
In every round, glass no. 5 earned top honors, eventually winning the overall vote at 34. Glass no. 4 was a close second, earning 28 votes. On all but the Sheldrake riesling, I felt that glass no. 5 was the most appropriate choice. A later harvest Riesling, the Sheldrake had a higher residual sugar and a touch of botrytis which made it an unusual but interesting example to test against the prevailing glass.
Glass no. 5, officially known as Riedel #446/15 from the Restaurant collection, was also the primary selection of the Finger Lakes winemakers from the morning tasting. It seemed that this particular glass was an overwhelming favorite for highlighting Finger Lakes Riesling based on these two tastings.
George Riedel explained that smell contributes as much as 80% to the sensation of taste in our mouths, and if one accepts that premise then it is easy to see how the shape and thickness of glassware can manipulate or enhance the flavors we associate with wine. I smelled and tasted distinct notes within each glass and nearly all seemed distinguishable from one another. Of the six glasses before us, each added or detracted from the wine in a different fashion. The small plastic cup was dead and lacked all character.
Yet, while I felt that I smelled and tasted radical differences based on the glasses alone, any psychologist in attendance would have been able to note the allure of the "show" being performed before us. George Riedel spoke quickly and confidently through each and every glass, suggesting his own interpretations of what he detected on his nose and palate. Almost from the beginning, I assumed that the glass we chose would come from the geographic middle of the controlled lineup, which it did, and would neither be the tallest or shortest glass, which it was not.
Beyond these reservations, I walked away convinced that glassware does have a huge effect on taste. For instance, I never considered how the shape of a glass makes us tilt it way back, a little, or not at all to engage our olfactory senses, and I believe that many variables like this contribute something to our wine experience. How could they not?
I am not prepared to spend a fortune on Riedel glassware, but I must admit I am intrigued by what I smelled and tasted under the direct guidance of George Riedel, who was kind enough to let us depart with our tasting set. I am planning on repeating the experiment with some innocent victims in the near future to gauge a reaction sans the heavy promotion.
As for glass #446/15, there is no firm plan yet as to how Riedel will market its new association with Finger Lakes Riesling or how the Finger Lakes itself will embrace the piece. Bob Madill of Sheldrake Point, chair of the Wine Alliance and conceiver of the Riedel visit, considers the glass "a quality symbol that re-enforces our experience and projects Finger Lakes Riesling as a world class quality wine." He plans to begin presenting his Riesling in this particular stemware to enhance the opinion of special visitors and critics. Others may choose to do the same.
George Riedel is a businessman who sells very expensive and well-made stemware. That being said, he seems sold on the Finger Lakes as a good investment, which says a lot about the growing profile of the region. Whether or not you believe in the Riedel experiment, there is little doubt that the Finger Lakes and its Rieslings are being taken more seriously by the wine industry as a whole.