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April 21, 2016

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Top-class glasses bring out the best in wines

THIS week’s iDeal section delves into the rich culture and craft of Chinese tea. One section examines how different styles of tea are served in specific types of cups or glasses, so I felt it particularly appropriate to examine the relationship between wine and glasses.

I love wine and I love glasses. At home I have nearly 100 different types of glasses that I’ve collected from all over the world. If you share my passion for wine, then most likely you are also enchanted by beautiful glasses. Throughout the ages, discriminating wine drinkers have come to realize that specific materials and contours of drinking vessels add to the pleasure of wine appreciation.

Pliny the Elder (AD 17-23), Ancient Rome’s equivalent to Chinese drinker-poet Li Bai, wrote of exquisite gold and silver drinking vessels that beautified the base desire of the elite to get drunk. By 1400 the Venetian Island of Murano was famous for its glass products and was producing exquisitely transparent and brilliant cristallo glasses made of crushed quartz pebbles. These prized vessels were even more costly than their precious-metal equivalents.

The earliest known depiction of a modern wine glass with stem is in Bonifacio Veronese’s 16th century painting "The Last Super." This painting indicates that the stemmed transparent wine glass was widely used in mid and late Renaissance Italy. By the late 17th century, branded manufacturers like Baccarat in France, Gus in Russia and Waterford in Ireland were making highly coveted lead crystal glasses. In modern times, European producers including Riedel, Spiegelau, Schott, Rona and Stolzle have increased the size and variety of glassware. Riedel alone offers hundreds of specially designed glasses for different varietals and styles of wines. Is this array of choices really necessary? Not really.

High quality glasses do enhance wine appreciation by illuminating color and hue, concentrating aromas, accelerating oxidation and improving the overall sensual experience. But much of the justification for varietal specific glasses was based on D.P. Hanig’s tongue map that is now widely discredited as unscientific. Most wine experts believe two or three sets of amply-sized crystal glasses is more than enough to ameliorate your wine drinking experience. If you still desire a large and costly collection of varietal specific glasses, go ahead and have fun. At least they look good on the table. But its still true that any wine tastes better in a good glass and there’s one style of wine that particularly benefits from a high quality glass.

The Loire River runs through the heart of France and wines from this region are among the most elegant in the world. In particular, wines from the hillside vineyards surrounding the village of Sancerre have the ability to seduce sensitive and discerning palates. Sancerre white wines are some of the most elegantly perfumed wines in the world and should be enjoyed as much with the nose as with the mouth. This makes a generously sized and nicely tapered glass especially important. The ample size allows you to swirl the wine thereby releasing the aromas and stick your nose into the glass and fully sense the exquisite aromas. If you favor French perfumes and colognes than these wines are sure to enchant with their sophisticated aromas of fruits, flowers and minerals.

The Romans first planted vines on the hillsides overlooking the majestic Loire River in 1 AD. This part of the Loire Valley is historically linked to the Duchy of Burgundy so it’s no accident that the red Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes of Burgundy were favored; however, the reds of Sancerre were historically not as highly regarded as those from Champagne and Burgundy. In the late 19th century when the phylloxera epidemic devastated the vines of Sancerre, most the growers replanted with the white variety Sauvignon Blanc because it took better to the American rootstock that was resistant to the disease. Today Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about 80 percent of Sancerre wines while Pinot Noir only comprises 20 percent. While the region’s lovely whites steal the limelight, light bodied, lively and fruity Sancerre Pinot Noir red wines can also be quite pleasant.

The white wines of Sancerre are exceptionally food friendly. The combination of dry and flinty restrained fruit flavors and a good acidic backbone allow this wine to match well with seafood, cheeses and white meats. In Shanghai I love pairing these wines with a bevy of delightful regional dishes including cold salty chicken, smoked river fish, river eels in brown sauce, lion’s head meat balls with crab paste, braised carp and seasonal hairy crabs. Delicate and acidic Sancerre Pinots are fine companions to salmon, cod and other oily fish as well as cooked shellfish.

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