Everything You Need to Know About the Best Traditional Wine Glass Pairings

There’s a famous line in German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe “La Vie Parisienne” that goes:

“The thing I can’t understand is why people in Paris drink bad wine in big glasses and good wine in small ones.”

As we learned in our last blog on why the shape and size of your glass matters when serving a given wine, there is a long tradition of using just the right glass for just the right wine.

Our best answer to Offenbach’s head-scratcher is that bad wines often have off-putting aromas, so a glass with a wider aperture will help aerate the wine quicker, thus encouraging the bad odors to “blow off,” as we often say in wine parlance. 

And inversely, good wines should have pleasant aromas, and so it can be (we repeat, can be) beneficial to use a smaller glass with a narrower aperture to concentrate the aromas.

While we’re firm believers in choosing whatever glass you like best for your wines, there is an art and tradition to pairing the right glass with the right wine. It can help to enhance the drinker’s pleasure in terms of how the wine looks and tastes. 

Below we’ll cover the cultural history and logic behind traditional wine glass pairings, so you can choose the right wine glass for your preferences.  

The Benefits of Traditional Wine Glass Pairings

As we explored in our last post, the right glass can help to set the mood or change the tone of a dinner party or celebration.

The best rule-of-thumb to follow when choosing the right stemware (not the objectively correct stemware, but rather the right stemware for your specific gathering or meal) is borrowed from the food world: If it grows with it, it goes with it. 

Sure, wine glasses don’t “grow” on vines like grapes do. But there’s a great analogy here — when you’re looking for guidance for pairing wines with food, it’s extremely useful to look at what the people who grow and make the wine pair with it: 

  • Foie gras with Sauternes from Graves in Bordeaux.
  • Blood-rare dry-aged porterhouse steak (“fiorentina”) with Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany.
  • Raw oysters with Muscadet from the coast of France.
  • Bright Prosecco with salty fried gobies from Venice. 

These are all traditional wine and food pairings that have worked well and delighted food lovers for centuries. And while food and wine pairings aren’t directly related to stemware and wine pairings, it’s good to look to the traditional glasses that the winemakers use as a guide for the stemware we select. 

Traditional Wine Glass Pairings Around the World

We can also look to traditional stemware for wines from different regions to guide us when selecting our glasses for a given wine. 

Today, most fine wine glassmakers categorize their products using the wine appellations and regions where the glass shapes are traditionally used. 

Best Burgundy Wine Glasses

The “Burgundy” glass is generally slightly shorter than most red wine glasses and has a wide balloon and a relatively wide aperture. From a technical point of view, this is ideal because it helps the wine to breathe or aerate, thus nudging it to release its nuanced aromas and flavors by means of oxygenation.

Even if you’re serving a Pinot Noir from somewhere else beside Burgundy, this is a good reference for Pinot Noir wines (say, from California or Oregon, for example).

Bordeaux Wine Glasses

The “Bordeaux” glass is taller and slightly narrower than the Burgundy glass. This helps to moderate the aeration and subsequent oxygenation of the wine, letting the wine open up a bit more slowly. 

Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. The style of glass traditionally and historically used in Bordeaux is a good reference for serving Bordeaux wines, but they also make good Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wine glasses (those are two primary grapes in Bordeaux), even when the wines are from other parts of France, or other parts of the world like California. 

Piedmont Glasses

In Piedmont, where Nebbiolo is considered the top grape (the variety used to make Barolo and Barbaresco, for example), the traditional glass is similar to the Burgundy glass—but the lip of the glass has a slightly flared rim. 

There’s really no other reason for this difference other than the fact that the Italians have used the flared glass for generations. In both cases, the broad balloon and aperture help these often tannic wines to open up more swiftly, increasing their drinkability.

Best White Wine Glasses

When it comes to white wines, most sommeliers agree (although there are exceptions to every rule) that the classic “white wine” glass or “Chardonnay” glass is the best way to go. 

This glass shape is narrower, with a much narrower balloon and aperture. Where red wines need aeration to open up, it’s best to avoid the oxygenation that can cause young white wines to lose their freshness (but again, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule). 

As we covered in our last blog, broader glasses cause the temperature of your wine to change slower. Narrow glasses will help the wine to warm up — ever so slightly — and help them release their aromas and flavors. 

One of the reasons why this glass works so well for white wines is because we tend to overchill our white wines. Even when we serve them properly chilled, they are still cold compared to the air around it (while red wines are best served at “cellar temperature”). The narrower aperture of the white wine glass will help the wine to warm up gently (as opposed to a broader aperture that will help the wine maintain its temperature).

Port & Dessert Wine Glasses

When Offenbach penned his operetta in the second half of the 19th century, sweet dried-grape wines were considered the best and the most coveted wines to drink—which means they were always the most expensive. 

Even today, dessert wines are often served in cordial glasses—small stemware with less volume. The smaller aperture concentrates the aromas and as a result, it heightens the drinker’s pleasure. 

There’s another reason why the “good wines” (i.e., sweet dried-grape wines) were served in small wine glasses: They tend to be much higher in alcohol than dry wines, and so it’s best to consume them in smaller quantities. 

Choosing the Best Wine Glass Pairing for You

We’ve reviewed the 5 basic glasses that sommeliers use. But stemware is a realm almost as varied and fascinating as wine itself. 

When you’re shopping for stemware, look at the glassmaker’s website for best glasses for a given style of wine. Talk to your wine merchant. The folks at Boulder Wine Merchant will be happy to help guide you in selecting the best stemware for your next dinner party. 

In our last post, we emphasized that when it comes to choosing the right stemware for the wine you’re serving, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We cannot stress enough how important it is to not feel like you must use a certain glass for a certain wine.

In the classic wine buddy movie “Sideways,” Miles drinks his 1961 Cheval Blanc (arguably one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines, and definitely one of the most expensive wines ever produced) in a Styrofoam cup! And if, while attending an indie rock show on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, someone hands us a glass of Bollinger Grand Année Champagne in a Solo cup, we’re not going to say no (especially if it’s the 2002). 

The main takeaway? If you can’t be with the glass you love, love the glass you’re with.

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