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Apr 26, 2012

It doesn't seem long ago that owning wine glasses was enough to mark one out as a sophisticate, but while I was smashing my way through boxes of Ikea stemware, the rules changed.

Matching glassware to wine is not new – Raymond Postgate's 1951 Plain Man's Guide to Wine dismisses traditional glass shapes for sherry, claret, port, champagne and hock, denouncing sherry glasses as "an inn-keepers' trick, [for making] the quantity of wine look much more than it is". Postgate says one glass will do: "It is colourless, rather tulip-shaped, and the upper rim of the cup narrows."

While Postgate was bemoaning fancy glassware, in Austria, ninth-generation glassmaker Claus Riedel was theorising about the effect on wine of the glass's shape. The company launched a range of grape-specific glasses in 1961, claiming: "Wide, open glass shapes require us to sip by lowering the head, whereas a narrow rim forces the head to tilt backwards so that the liquid flows. This delivers and positions the beverage to different 'taste zones' of the palate.”

Such specific zones are now known to be an oversimplification and I am not convinced about them, but I have come to test the theory out with John Lewis's style-specific wine glasses for different weights of whites and reds. Wine expert Will Parker admits he shared my scepticism, but thinks he can change my mind. Certainly John Lewis customers seem to be convinced: the range, launched last year at £30 for four glasses, has been flying off the shelves, with a sales peak this month.

We try out the large white glass. The effect on an Australian chardonnay is startling – out of the standard glass, it is dull and heavy, reminiscent of a hundred pub pours; the tailored glass spreads it evenly around my mouth, bringing out far more exciting flavours of pineapple, smoke, even minerality.

Riedel's glasses remain covetable among wine lovers (although starting at £65, they are not a casual proposition) – the Wine Advocate's Robert Parker has described the difference they can make as "profound", while Victoria Moore says in her book How to Drink that buying an expensive bottle of wine without decent glasses "would be like buying a state-of-the-art sound system and fitting it to cheap speakers".

But not everyone is convinced. The Oxford Companion to Wine’s Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson acknowledge subtle differences made by glassware but maintain such things are for "purists". Even champagne flutes, the most mainstream of the specialist glasses, are of debated worth. Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon's chef de cave, swears by white wine glasses for serving champagne, because flutes, while concentrating the fizz, can also stifle older, more complex wines: "You taste the way you see," he says. "A narrow flute will narrow the taste, an ample wine glass will amplify the taste, a flat saucer will flatten the taste."

Whatever you are drinking out of, the most important thing is to ensure it is clean, stemmed, to keep the wine at a constant temperature and ideally, tulip-shaped to concentrate the aromas. The right glassware can't make a bad wine good, but it can make a good wine more enjoyable – if you can avoid knocking them over, of course. Which is a talent I fondly hope to acquire with age.