Ditch those glasses
I gave up the flute years ago. It was a pretty easy decision to make, since I was seeing so many other people giving it up. They were drinking sparkling wine from — brace yourself — regular wine glasses. And it was awesome.
This wasn’t happening in restaurants, where some traditions of dining are slow to change, even amid the culinary experimentation of recent years. The broad-sweeping flute kiss-off was occurring at wineries. In visit after visit, sparkling wine was being handed to me in a regular wine glass.
The “regular” wine glass we’re talking about is what would technically be referred to as a Bordeaux glass — straight-sided and tapering slightly to the rim. This is the glass you would use to serve sauvignon blanc or cabernet sauvignon. It’s the glass you would have in your cabinet if you chose to own only one style of wine glass.
Quite often, the people serving bubbles in regular glasses were the very people who had made the wine. They all basically said that a regular glass lets the wines’ aromas run free. And we all know how connected and important our sense of smell is to our sense of taste. If winemakers thought their wine was not as good in a flute as it was in a regular glass, there must be something to it, right? Who would know better than they did?
Guessing game: I still have a few flutes, but they have not seen any action in years — except for one recent night in late December, when I pulled them down from a shelf for some side-by-side blind-sniffing. A small group of willing participants — each of them a casual wine drinker with no formal training — tied cloth napkins around their heads to cover their eyes and promised to do their best to describe what they were about to smell.
I poured five sparkling wines into flutes, poured the same wines into regular glasses, and asked my guests for their impressions of each. With their hands on the table and their nostrils hovering just above the glasses, they offered descriptive words about two different Champagnes, a Cava, a bottle of English fizz and a California sparkler.
Pretty much across the board they picked the regular glass.
Or rather, their comments picked the regular glass. The words they used to describe the wines in the regular glasses were often more pleasant; they were also more abundant than the words they used to describe the wines in the flutes. They had more and better things to say about the wines in the regular glasses.
On top of that, the initial aromas wafting from the flutes vanished much earlier. The sniffers said things like “fading” and “weak” and “It’s like … where’d it go?” when their noses were over the flutes, and things like “ocean,” “grapefruit,” “peach,” “anise,” “apple,” “strawberry” and “citrusy” when their noses were over the regular glasses.
The sparkle: The flutes did have one advantage, however. At times they gave off the impression of freshness. The sniffers could sense the wines’ effervescence and brightness, and that is pretty much the main selling point of the wine flute — to highlight a sparkling wine’s sparkle. The idea is that the long, thin cylinder helps keep the bubbles bubbly. And looking pretty.
The flute was certainly an improvement over the glass style that preceded it historically: the wide and flat coupe. The glass that screams “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” You know the one. It looks kind of like a pudding dish on a stem, and when it’s full of bubbly, the best technique is to sort of cup it from underneath with your whole hand, to stabilize it. I can’t think of any reason to use that kind of a glass for liquid unless you’re doing it at a costume party and you’re surrounded by flappers and guys dressed like the Monopoly Man.
Swirl and sniff: Still, I also can’t think of much reason to drink from a flute, unless the aesthetics are that important to you. The amped-up bubble action is fun, but to me it’s not worth cutting off your ability to swirl and sip with relative ease.
If my little experiment and the preferences of scores of winemakers matter in your decision-making process, the clear choice is to pour bubbles into regular old wine glasses and give them a gentle swirl and sniff before you drink, much as you’d do with a still wine.
So if you’re still trying to come up with a New Year’s resolution, here you go: Quit the flute.
The sparklers used in the blind-sniffing event: Duval-Leroy Prestige Premier Cru Brut Rose Champagne ($80), 2010 The Bolney Estate West Sussex Blanc de Blancs Brut ($60), Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($45), Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut ($45), Canals Canals Rosat Reserva Cava ($20).