For the last couple of months I’ve been drinking luxuriously.
The bottles have been no different — they are the usual mix depending on regions, grapes and producers I’m curious about and articles I’m working on, with the occasional treat. But I’ve been pouring wine into five of the best wine glasses money can buy.
Over most of the last decade the top glass among wine lovers was the Zalto Denk’Art Universal, which, when I first encountered it in 2011, seemed fundamentally different and radically better than the other leading glasses.
But in the last few years several other high-end glasses have been challenging Zalto’s supremacy, which brought me to these five lead-free crystal universal glasses, each precisely designed (and marketed) to be the only glass anybody would need to drink every sort of wine.
Anybody, that is, willing to pay the roughly $60 to $90 price per glass.
Most wine drinkers, admittedly, will neither want nor need such rarefied glasses. Many casual drinkers are happy these days to use inexpensive goblets or even stemless glasses, which I would not seek out, though I am happy enough on occasion to drink wine from a tumbler.
Wine shows best in smartly shaped stemmed glasses, in which the bowl is large enough that a pour filling a quarter of the glass is generous. The bowl should be transparent, without etching or decoration, widest near the base and tapering inward to the rim to channel aromas upward.
Holding the glass by the stem helps avoid finger smudges and prevents the wine from being warmed by the heat of the hand. (This is why I generally don’t care for stemless glasses.)
The Wirecutter, The Times’s product review site, has long recommended glasses that cost $12 apiece, which are generally fine for people who enjoy wine but tend not to make a big deal of it.
The high-end glasses below are for people who care deeply about wine, who invest in their collections and drink with consideration and reverence. If wine occupies an important role in life, the choice of glasses is crucial and may demand this sort of considerable commitment.
For people like this, wine glasses must be esthetically pleasing but above all functional, enhancing the perception of wines that can often be subtle, nuanced and, in the case of older vintages, fragile and fleeting.
Choosing wine glasses is a little like selecting a car: Even the least-expensive vehicle will get you where you want to go, but the trip is a different experience in the finest Mercedes-Benz.
I am certainly not a purist who will drink only from the best. But I do love great glasses. So it was that my dining area became the arena for a wine glass smackdown, a term that I use advisedly given the lightness and seeming fragility of these five glasses.
In fact, I found each to be as durable as they were delicate. I didn’t baby them or hesitate to put them in the dishwasher. Their manufacturers consider them all dishwasher safe, a prerequisite for someone like me, whose commitment to wine does not extend to the handwashing and cloth drying of glassware.
The five glasses I’ve been testing since November include the Zalto Universal and four competitors: the Gabriel-Glas Gold Edition; the Wine Glass, from the partnership of Jancis Robinson, the renowned British wine writer, and the designer Richard Brendon; the Sensory Glass, designed by Roberto Conterno of the great Barolo producer Giacomo Conterno, in conjunction with Zwiesel Kristallglas, a German manufacturer; and the Josephine Universal from Josephinenhütte, which has perhaps the most interesting back story.
It was designed by Kurt Josef Zalto — that Zalto — who left his eponymous company some time ago.
“In order to grow faster, I made the compromise of accepting foreign investors into my company,” he told Forbes magazine in December 2020. “I was pushed out and they kept the ‘Zalto’ name.”
It’s worth recalling the impact of the Zaltos when they arrived in the United States in 2010. I will always remember my first encounter in early 2011.
It was at a tasting in New York City. I believe the subject of the day was Valtellina, but in this instance I recall the glasses better than the wine.
Stemmed glasses typically have a curved bowl, with some standard variations. The two most typical are the Burgundy glass, with a big, broad bowl that tapers inward toward the top, and the Bordeaux glass, taller with a narrower bowl that likewise curves inward toward the lip.
The Zalto was tall like a Bordeaux glass but rather than gently curving and arcing upward, it angled up abruptly and inward in rather a straight line. It seemed impossibly thin and light, a sensual pleasure to hold. As I swirled wine in the glass, the stem seemed to bend back and forth, delicate yet flexible and strong.
Most important, the aromas and flavors of the wine presented themselves with clarity and intensity. Altogether the glass was a joy. I bought a set of six almost immediately after the tasting, not cheap at more than $50 apiece but worth it for supplementing the conventional, serviceable Riedel Vinum Cabernet glasses that I had long been using daily at home for every sort of wine.
In the years that followed, the Zalto Universal became a standard among many wine aficionados. I saw Zaltos in wine-loving restaurants as august as Le Bernardin in New York and as modest as Cave Ox, a wine bar in the Sicilian town of Solicchiata near Mount Etna. Some restaurants, if your bottle was expensive enough or your name recognizable, would whisk away the generic glasses on the table and replace them with Zaltos.
The arrival of the Zalto Universal filled a void left by Riedel, the leading wine glass producer at the time. Riedel’s high-end crystal glasses were of exceptional quality, but the company made a selling point of painstakingly creating specialized glasses.
Not just a specific glass for Bordeaux, but one for young Bordeaux and another for aged Bordeaux, others for sangiovese, syrah, Montrachet, Chablis, Oregon pinot noir, zinfandel, riesling, you name it.
What’s more, the glasses in the high-end Riedel Sommeliers series seemed absurdly colossal, like something a wine snob in a parody of pretension might select to impress.
The Zalto by contrast was modestly sized. And, although Zalto made three other glasses specifically for reds, whites and sparklers, the Universal, with its suggestion that it was appropriate for all wines, appealed to my own longstanding belief that the ease of having one all-purpose glass far outweighed whatever microscopic benefits might accrue from choosing specialized glasses.
Zalto stood alone, contending with various less-expensive knockoffs until the other glass companies moved in with their own high-end universal glasses.
Of the five I tried, the Gabriel-Glas and the Jancis were very much in the Zalto mold. The Jancis has a slightly shorter stem, and the base of the bowl was more gently rounded and narrow. The Gabriel-Glas was wider at the base of the bowl than the Zalto and more abruptly angled inward; it was also the lightest of the glasses, almost feathery in the hand. To my eyes, the Jancis seemed the most classically beautiful.
The Josephine resembled the Zalto, with a significant difference: The bowl bulged slightly around the lowest part of its circumference as if it had a circular love handle before beginning to taper toward the rim, in a gentle arc rather than the Zalto’s straight line.
What’s the purpose of this unusual shape? “When the wine is agitated in the glass, the kink breaks this movement and allows the wine to flow back into the belly in a spiral motion,” a Josephinenhütte representative told me. “In doing so, it absorbs additional oxygen.”
The last glass, the Conterno Sensory, was the real outlier. It was shaped like a classic Burgundy stem, shorter than the others with a much broader, rounder bowl, which tapered inward toward the rim before gently flaring upward.
Spoiler alert: These are all wonderful glasses, gorgeous to look at and delightful to hold. Each was superior to the Riedel Vinum, the far cheaper and less exalted glass I’ve used at home for years.
Each was great with Champagnes, surprisingly even the wide Conterno Sensory. The current conventional wisdom suggests drinking Champagne and sparkling wines from smaller goblets, which channel the bubbles and aromas upward. But Champagne from the Conterno was full-flavored, forceful and intense, certainly no worse than the other glasses.
In addition to Champagne from these glasses, I drank white Burgundies, red Burgundies, red Bordeaux, dry rieslings, older Barolos and an assortment of younger wines. I found enough differences to divide them into two groups.
The Jancis and the Gabriel-Glas were, to me, the most aesthetically appealing in shape and feel. I simply wanted them in my hands because they felt so good. But there was a discernible difference in the way the wines presented in these two glasses.
Whether sparkling, white or red, wines in these two glasses seemed slightly less focused, the flavors and aromas not quite as clear or as intense. The differences were subtle but apparent.
I found in the Zalto, the Josephine and the Conterno slightly more precision, clarity and intensity to the wines. Among the high points was drinking Champagne from the Josephine, in which a pretty fountain of tiny bubbles rose directly up to the surface from the point where stem and bowl meet.
Older Barolo in the Conterno glass was predictably beautiful and nuanced, marginally better than in the other glasses. I found other differences as well. With younger reds, like a 2017 Savigny-les-Beaune, both the Conterno and the Josephine seemed to exaggerate, or reveal, the wine’s tannic structure in a way I could not perceive in the other glasses.
Was this a good thing? The wines were more puckery and astringent and less enjoyable. Such brutal honesty in a wine glass may be as welcome as a harshly lit bathroom mirror the morning after a rough night.
People who love wine and are willing to invest in top-end glasses have a lot of options. Josephinenhütte, like Zalto, also offers glasses designated for whites, reds and sparklers. Those with unlimited budget and space can follow the specialized Riedel route.
If you believe in the philosophy of one great glass for all wines, as I do, you won’t go wrong with any of these five glasses. I suspect many will find their own subjective reasons to embrace one of them. They all made me happy, but I am glad I invested in those Zaltos 11 years ago. I think they are still hard to beat.