Friday, June 17, 2005

Is Riedel's Concept of Taste Dated by 100 Years?

I notice that Riedel has reworked its website - nice job - but the requirement to change my display to 1024x768 was unnecessary and annoying. The English could use a bit of editing as well. For Example:

"The shape of the glass forces the head to position itself in such a way that you drink and do not spill." - was spilling a big problem before Riedel?

"a narrow rim forces the head to tilt backwards so that the liquid flows because of its gravity" - ALWAYS drink via gravity, unless you're using a straw...

However, what I found noteworthy was that Riedel is still holding fast to the so-called "tongue map" that was based on a study performed in 1901 by Hanig (written in German) and misunderstood by future readers. The conclusion drawn by some was that the tongue sensed certain tastes only in specific regions of the tongue (from Riedel's website):

But this is not the case! And where is the
umami zone anyway!?!?!

On their website, Riedel describes how their special glasses create a "wine flow (that) is directed onto the appropriate taste zones of your palate and consequently leads to different taste pictures. "

Now I'm not sure what a "taste picture" is but I can tell you that the concept of the tongue map has long been discarded, despite Riedel's careful dancing around the topic on its website, and while the tongue does have different sensitivities to tastes in some areas, they are not statistically significant or consistent from person to person. Thus, the whole Riedel concept of directing characteristics of the wine into the right region of the mouth is bogus (have I mentioned that

To wit:
"If you have performed this test, you may be surprised to learn that the tongue map is wrong. It is a mistranslation of an early-1900s German thesis that was disproved in 1974. Unfortunately, it continues to be published in textbooks [and wineglass manufacturers websites /huge] today. For the record, we perceive all taste qualities all over our tongue, although there may be increased sensitivity to certain qualities in certain areas. "

Why does Riedel want people to continue to believe in the tongue-map fairy? Simple, if it is disproven that the tongue tastes differently in different regions, their lineup of glasses unique to each varietal is proven wrong (as I may have mentioned once or twice in this space). Though they may be in denial about the science, I still tip my hat to their marketing genius and remember that famous quote credited to P.T. Barnum.....

So get out your jelly jars and drink up!


Anonymous Oliver McCrum said...


Love your blog, just started reading it.

Re Riedel: they may be pompous and Teutonic, but I find from experience that the glasses work really well. For example, the Riesling glass really makes Riesling taste good. So their theory may be off, but their results are good.

The glasses were designed by making hundreds of different shapes and tasting a given type of wine from all the shapes. So it's just empirical.

I'm glad they started the whole debate.

June 27, 2005 11:35 AM  
Blogger Huge said...

Oliver - Thanks for your comments.

Have you tried the following experiment? Pour a bottle of Riesling into 5 glasses. Say, 2 of Riedel's Rieslng glasses and 3 similar, but non-Riesling glasses. If their claims are true, you should be able to pick out both of the Riesling glasses blindfolded! Try it and report back please....

Its not that I don't like Riedel, I in fact have some of their glasses and like them quite well. Its just that I don't buy the whole "one glass for each varietal" thing.


June 27, 2005 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Oliver McCrum said...


I organised a tasting with George Oberglasmeister Riedel about fifteen years ago (with the amazing Marjorie Lumm). We had four different glasses for each of three different wines (Mondavi reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet).

The Riedel glasses made the wines taste far better than the other glasses. The traditional red Burgundy glass (flattened-sphere goblet) was by far the worst Pinot glass, interestingly; same is true of the traditional Cognac balloon, terrible effect on the spirit.

You are right about their theory, but they didn't use the theory in deciding on the shapes, AFAIK.

Before the Riedel tasting, I went out to Marjorie's showroom in Marin and we tasted a bottle of Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel (still a good wine at that point, which dates the tasting) in eight different glasses. Tasted like eight different wines, I swear.

June 28, 2005 4:12 PM  
Blogger Huge said...


Again - thanks for the comments. I had a similar experience with different Riedel glasses, but was unable to replicate it when we tried it blindfolded. I think that the power of suggestion is stronger than we tend to think.

I think the only way to really test the theory is to taste them blindfolded. Even then, you're not eliminating the effects of smell which is a huge component of the tasting process.

Still, I'd be curious to know how you did in a truly "blind" tasting!


June 29, 2005 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Oliver McCrum said...


I'm discounting the whole taste-map thing, so the smell would be part of the usefulness of the glass, rather than a distraction.

The first article about this that I remember was in Decanter ages ago; a bunch of trade tasters started with a strong prejudice against the glass making any difference, and ended up agreeing that it did make a big difference.

Seperately, quite agree about Brett and The Critic. Laube is getting pilloried for stating the truth, I think; Brett is never a good thing.

June 29, 2005 11:45 AM  
Blogger Huge said...

Oliver, there was a recent Gourmet article that showed no difference in taste from a blindfolded tasting. I think it was from the August, '04 issue.

Anyway, just another interesting wine debate that will probably never be solved.


June 29, 2005 4:10 PM  

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