A Brief History of the Wine Glass
By Roisin Leadbetter
How did the object that is recognised throughout the world as the ‘wine glass’, become just that?
It has evolved through a series of technological advances, world and historical influences and the desire for beautiful objects.
Before the wine glass was invented, wine had been consumed from a variety of vessels. Over the centuries these vessels ranged from baked clay goblets, timber and bronze tankards to pottery goblets, animal horns and the leather drinking vessel known as a ‘black jack’ but the material that would become synonymous with wine drinking long into the future has always existed and was slowly evolving into its familiar physique.
Glass is in fact one of the oldest manufactured materials in the world. Early man discovered Obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass that is black and subtly green in colour. This was used for making sharp tools for hunting and cutting but the first objects manufactured entirely from glass originated from Mesopotamia around 2000bce. The earliest sculptured vessels found in this region, some of which still survive today would probably have been used for oils and cosmetics of the aristocracy.
Obsidian sample from Monte Pilato (Sicilia) - User: Ji-Elle / Wikimedia Commons
These technological advances emanating from Mesopotamia slowly over the decades began to spread to new regions of the world and in 1ce from the Babylonian region came the next step in glass making; the blowing technology.
A modern Glassblowing setup at Jerpoint Glass Studio – The technology has evolved but the techniques remain the same as 2000 years ago.
1000 years later the centre of world domination in glass is Europe and in 1400ce, the shape of the wine glass as we recognise it today with its bowl, stem and base first appeared in the city of Venice. People had been using glass vessels to drink from since ancient times but the bowl, stem and base is essentially a medieval design.
The next advance in the history of the wine glass came from an Italian artist and scientist coming from a family with a long history of glass working. Angelo Barovier was the name of this glass artist and the invention of clear glass or Cristallo is his legacy. In 1455 Barovier was given the decree of Venetian Republic and this granted him the exclusive rights to the production of clear glass through a technique he developed which he called crystal glass or Venetian crystal.
Gradually over the years the familiar shape we recognise today as a wine glass in clear glass began to make its first appearance in visual history through contemporary art pieces. Some of the best and most notable examples of this are ‘The Bathers’ by Bonafacio Veronese painted in 1540 and Vermeer’s ‘The Wine Glass’ painted in 1660.
The Bather’s by Bonifacio Veronese - 1540
But long before that, the very first recorded mention of glass being used as a drinking vessel was in Pliny the elders’ book 36’ of his ‘naturalis historia’ way back in 79ce; Pliny states; ‘for drinking vessels glass has quite superseded the use of gold and silver’. This was just before he died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the annihilation of the city of Pompeii while trying to rescue a friend by boat from the small town of Stabiae.
The Wine Glass by Vermeer - 1660
Pliny, not only talks about the properties of glass saying that; ’there is no material of a more pliable nature than this’. He also muses about how well suited it is to colouring and of all the different substances used to colour it, like haematinum, hyacinthine, murrhine and sapphire among others. What is truly intriguing are his ruminations about the ‘highest value being placed on colourless, transparent glass that is as near as it could be to crystal’. Even in 79ce, over 1500 years before a method for producing clear glass was invented, the inclination towards clear glass already existed. While the method of production was far in the future the awareness of the crystal substance had obviously been witnessed through natural occurrence and experimentation.
"With the migration of the wine to the table came the transformation of the wine glass."
In the early 1700s it was uncustomary for gentile to hold their glass in their hand. The glass would have been handed to nobility by the footman or valet when they arrived in their coach, straight after alighting. It was then glugged down swiftly and handed back. The glass of the day most commonly used for wine would have resembled what we think of today as a shot glass. It was towards the end of the century by the time the wine bottle made its way to the table and people finally had the pleasure of pouring their own wine.
With the migration of the wine to the table came the transformation of the wine glass. The role of the wine glass, was now one of aesthetic pleasure and decorative necessity, displaying tones of refinement and sophistication while maintaining functionality.
Silver Chalice by Eva Lynch Design – 2017
The bowl, stem and base began to re-emerge as a popular design, but not just for all of the elegance brought by the tall slim stem, the twists or the decorative knops but also for very practical reasons like; maintaining peak optimum temperature. Now that the wine glass was in the hand more it was soon apparent that the warmth of that hand around the bowl would greatly affect the wine and so began the trend of using a long stem for white and a shorter stem for red.
“It was a time honoured tradition for the Toast Master to empty his glass after each toast and to remain standing until all the toasts had been completed.”
The role of Toast Master was a very important role during this period. The Toast Master was responsible for keeping an event from becoming boring, relying on light humour, anecdotes, epigrams and whatever natural wit he had at his disposal to keep an evening interesting and enjoyable for guests. It was a time honoured tradition for the Toast Master to empty his glass after each toast and to remain standing until all the toasts had been completed. Such was the importance of the Toast Master maintaining his sobriety that a special glass was developed for him with thicker walls and base and some almost solid glasses so that the completion of this task would run smoothly and a joyous night would be had by all. This was no doubt some part of the beginning of the designing of different drinking glasses for different drinks.
This was taken a step further by Riedel, an Austrian wine company founded in 1756. Riedel is best known for its glassware designed to amplify each different class of grape variety. The idea was that a particular design of glass would enhance each wine based on specific properties of the individual grape variety. Riedel went on to bring dozens of variety-specific wine glasses to a global audience.
Today we still follow the trend of different styles of glass to accentuate the characteristics of different wines.
White wines are typically served in a glass with a smaller bowl for the purpose of perpetuating floral aromas, maintaining a cooler temperature, expressing more acidity and in general to preserve a crisp clean flavour and keep the wine sparkling longer.
Whereas red wines are more commonly served in a glass with a larger bowl, a bowl large enough for a quality swirl with the purpose of mitigating the bitterness of the tannins. The wider bowl would allow for better aeration and evaporation of ethanol giving the wine a chance to mellow resulting in a much smother flavour.
A full bodied white with some similar characteristics to a red would then be best served in a medium sized glass while a champagne would be far better suited to a tall narrow flute.
"For a younger more tannic red it is not enough just to uncork the bottle and leave it to sit for an hour or so."
There are many traditions and rituals and ideas of the sensory perception surrounding wine and the shape of the wine glasses all starting with Riedel in the 18th century. Before this nobody had noticed or thought that the shape of the glass from which you were drinking could affect the taste, balance and finish of a wine. The large and small bowls for different wines is something that has remained popular but despite extensive research on the subject there is still no scientific evidence that the glass has much if any impact on the wine.
What does seem to have a consequent impact on the wine is the practice of decanting.
For a younger more tannic red it is not enough just to uncork the bottle and leave it to sit for an hour or so. Decanting in this case gives more room for aeration to take place. With an aged red wine it is not always necessary for aeration and too much aeration can harm the mellow flavours but Decanting happens with older reds for another reason. It is common for a build-up of sediment in these well aged reds which can be unpleasant. It is good practice to leave the bottle to sit upright for 24 hours before slowing pouring the wine into a decanter and leaving behind the sediment. Some whites again with similar traits to red would also do well with decanting but in general with crisp young whites, they are best served fresh and chilled.
Another benefit of decanting is that in a clear glass decanter it is much easier to see the colour of the wine which can be a good indication of how ready it is to drink. A bold bright colour would indicate it still has plenty of life and can use a few extra minutes of aeration.
Over all it would appear that the pouring, the breathing, the decanting and the accompanying of the right wine with the right food have a far greater impact on the flavour of the wine than the glass. The length of the stem however can make a difference regarding optimum temperature.
From Pliny in 79ce, through Venice and Venetian crystal, the ‘Toast Master’ in Georgian England and Riedel in Austria, the wine glass has made its way through art and history and is still here with us today as established and fashionable as ever it was. Traditions, rituals and many fine customs have followed the wine glass on its journey. Another idea that has made this journey is; ‘the right glass, is right, for the pleasure of using it’, this is the feeling of quality in your hand, the elegance it brings to a table setting, the charm it embodies as a beautiful and functional object and finally the clinking sound it makes when drinking a toast.
At Jerpoint Glass, all our wine glasses are hand-blown and hand-finished in our studio in Kilkenny using century old techniques. To see all of Jerpoint Glass Wine collections click on the link below:
Jerpoint Glass Wine Glasses
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