There is often a moment when my partner and I are out for dinner that we know may cause confusion or offence. This is the moment when the waiter brings over the glasses to go with the bottle of wine we have chosen, glasses so big as to engulf our faces. They then proceed to pour half the bottle into each glass, and, once the evening gets a little livelier, the monster glasses invariably get knocked over as one of us gesticulates wildly whilst telling a story.
To avoid disaster, we have to break it to the waiter that although we have ordered a slightly more expensive bottle of wine we would rather have the glasses that 'go' with the house wine, simple, perfectly sized glasses that are likely stay in one piece throughout the evening. A small amount of questioning of our judgement ensues before they wander off looking either offended or confused and return with the smaller glasses that we have requested.
Michael Broadbent (whom we rate very highly as a wine writer) mentioned at the end of a tasting note that he had “rinsed, steamed and polished his Riedel glasses” after dinner. Now, I fully appreciate that a master wine taster is likely to have a decent glass collection at home, but there was no need to mention exactly who had made the glasses - unless of course Riedel had been sponsoring his tastings at the time of writing. It might also be worth mentioning at this point that the old tongue map theory that inspired Riedel's glass shapes has been widely discredited since the 1970's.
The 'correct' equipment for fully appreciating wine is a major industry these days and, yes, certain items will help to show a wine at its best. However, from the information that’s out there one can assume that one needs a full sommelier’s station available, even for a simple glass of wine for one.
So what do you really need? And where should you invest the money?
Let’s start with the item that is entirely necessary for getting the whole drinking process started, the humble corkscrew. Or rather, the no longer humble corkscrew. The weird and utterly pointless contraptions that have emerged in this category are astonishing and most are about aesthetic rather than practicality. The essential rule is that you need a spiral screw and not a screw with a shaft down the middle (see image below). The shaft will break the cork. You also need an escape plan – when the cork starts to disintegrate whilst you’re removing it, or breaks, or won’t budge, or is so soggy it’s going to fall into the bottle, you need to be able to change tactic and either start again or work slowly to remove it carefully. If you’re using some all singing, all dancing lever corkscrew you will have no control over it when things start to go off course and you will have to hope the technology works in every scenario, which it doesn’t.
The best thing you can have is a simple, well made, butler's friend that you feel confident using.
Glasses, as I mentioned earlier, need not be huge fishbowls that you can barely fit your hand around. They need to do two key things: they need to allow the wine to reach your palate smoothly and cleanly – a fine rim will do the trick; and they should also taper at the top so the mouth of the glass is narrower than the bowl – this pushes the bouquet to the top allowing you to smell it easily both before and when taking a sip. These two features are not hard to find and a large number of companies make glasses like this without a hefty price tag.
A final point is that you should enjoy drinking from them. Wine is about enjoyment as much as appreciation so invest in glasses that fit the criteria but are also a pleasure to use. Whether you spend a fortune on them or not is entirely up to you.
Decanters are one of those items that get a reputation for being poncy and over the top but the reality is that they are incredibly useful and sometimes entirely necessary.
If you are drinking red wine that is 10 years old or more there is likely to be a sediment in the bottom. If you continue to upturn the bottle throughout the evening when pouring each glass the sediment will start to get mixed into the wine and ruin the overall enjoyment. A wine with a bit of age should stand vertically for a few hours before drinking and then decanted steadily – always have plenty of light in the room so you can see when the sediment is starting to reach the neck of the bottle.
Another good reason for a decanter is to allow the wine to breath. Wine that may be a little young or tight or even a little fusty on the nose will benefit from being decanted. The air will help it to open up and soften or rid it of any bottle fust.
The type of decanter you use is entirely up to you. Again, you can spend a fortune on a decanter collection or just pick one up at a local wine shop. You’d be surprised how many you can find for very little in most antique or collectibles shops.
For anyone who likes white wine a wine cooler is an essential item but is definitely not something you need to invest in. A bucket or saucepan with ice (and water - if you don't put some water in, very little of the ice will be in contact with the bottle and will therefore not cool it) will do just fine.
My brief mention of a sommelier's station earlier was a little cheeky as most sommeliers I have come across invariably use the simplest of equipment. The corkscrew is always a well-made butler's friend and, when the large glasses arrive at the table and we send them back they don’t tend to mind. The oddly shaped decanter no one is quite sure how to pick up I would imagine is a result of the restaurant manager’s taste rather than theirs but some do have the amusing affectation of carrying a tastevin around their necks. This a small, silver bowl that allows them to taste the wine and check it’s clarity before serving it to the customer.
We'd be delighted if you would read our advice above and then buy whatever you like (unless of course it’s a shaft rather than a spiral corkscrew - that will just break your corks). If you love a glass big enough to fit a whole bottle of wine in, go for it - just make sure it’s of a decent quality. If you have a thing for wild and expensive decanters, then great - as long as you have one. And if you really want a sommeliers tastevin to enhance your drinking experience then why not - everyone needs a dinner party piece.