You can drink wine out of anything. Once it’s in your mouth, it’s either mixed with food as part of a meal, swished around as part of an evaluation or overlooked in favor of stimulating conversation. But on those special occasions when the setting is key or those solitary, pensive moments when being enchanted by the dance of the wine in the glass and relishing the aromas are the core of the wine experience, fine stemware is essential. German Stölzle stemware (pronounced: STOH-zul) offers great style, performance and value for just those situations.
I grew up with Waterford-styled cut crystal in Poland. While I appreciate this style, it is not my preference. I want my stemware to be light and elegant. Thin, uncolored and uncut stemware with clean lines and nice proportions does not interfere with the visual presentation of the wine. Stemware should also be interesting in its appearance without being ridiculous. Styling is nothing if the glass does not enhance the olfactory experience of the wine. Aside of these esthetic qualities, stemware should also be affordable, durable and easy to clean.
These are the general criteria I had in mind when I agreed to assess a few sets of stemware provided by Stölzle-USA.
There are several major players in the global crystal stemware arena. For over 225 years, Stölzle has been making glasses of all types in the Oberlausitz region, near the German-Polish border. They produce over 30 million stems a year and distribute them to restaurants, hotels, wineries and retail in 45 different countries.
This crystal is produced with silicon dioxide for luster and elasticity without the problems associated with lead leeching into wine. In addition, Stölzle produces decanters and bar ware. A short movie about their production facility can be found here.
Stölzle employs “pulled stem” technology in their machine-produced and mouth-blown stems: “Durability of pulled stem technology comes from the fact that the bowl and stem are one solid piece of glass. No more snapping the bowl off the top of the stem“, Edward Artidiello, President of Stölzle-USA tells me. He goes on to say: “Stölzle’s price, quality and durability ratio is one of the best values on the planet today“.
I received 11 stems from the “Classic”, “Experience”, “Exquisit”, “Fire” and “Grandezza” lines (full catalog). By far, my favorites are the mouth-blown Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses from the “Fire” series. This very stunning series is aptly named. A small amount of wine will dance out of the beaked bottom, sweep the inside of the bowl and even lick up the inside of the narrowed opening – with more vigorous (and perhaps, experienced) swirling. There is even something very sexy about the way water beads on these glasses after rinsing (see slide show, below).
I also love the modern styling of the “Experience” and “Exquisit” series. The “Experience” is quite striking, with a nearly flat, widely flanged bottom and gently tapered sides. The “Exquisit” series is more traditionally styled with its broad bowl that tapers up from the stem and then back in toward a narrowed opening. This series strikes a very elegant, gem-like silhouette. The “Classic” and “Grandezza” series are two different but attractive takes on the more conventional stem silhouette.
The size and shape of a stem’s bowl are critical to the way a wine’s aromatic character is expressed. While a particular wine glass will not rid a well-made wine of its aromatics, different size and shape bowls will affect the way a particular wine smells much like adjusting the separate bands on an equalizer will affect the way the same piece of music sounds.
I had first started casually tasting the wines I review with the Stölzle glasses alongside of the Riedel Vivant stemware I use. There was a distinct difference between all the stems but I wanted to take a more formal look and tabulate my findings – not only because it’s my nature to organize information into some workable framework but also to give some structure to my assessment.
I tested the “Fire” Burgundy glass against my Riedel Vivant pinot noir glass as well as a Riedel Oregon pinot noir glass with several pinot noirs. I tested the Stölzle glasses labeled as “Bordeaux”, “Cabernet” and “Red Wine” against my Vivant red wine glass with two different wines: a California cabernet-based blend and a merlot-dominant Bordeaux. I also tested the “Red Wine” and “All Purpose” glasses alongside the Stölzle “Syrah” and “Shiraz” glasses comparing them to my Vivant red wine glass with two different syrahs from the Central Coast. I tested the line-ups with the different wines on separate occasions. The combined results of my comparative assessments are available in PDF format here.
In general, I found that the bigger volume bowls tend to give a fuller, rounder expression to the aromas. This, may be a function of the surface area at the top of the wine. The “Experience” glasses also seem to allow for a richer aromatic expression – perhaps because their shape exposes more of the wine’s volume to warming through the glass. I also have to say that the “Fire” pinot noir glass seems to make the aromas more focused while accentuating the higher-toned end of the aromatic spectrum. I would have to agree with the commentary found on Stölzle’s web site about which aromatic components are enhanced or downplayed by this glass.
I received the shipment of samples just prior to moving. All the stems made it safely to my house and after inspection, I re-packed them for the 50-mile move up to L.A. They held up nicely. I had no way to reproducibly test how they withstand impact or a tip-over so their survival of multiple jostling in shipment and during the move will have to speak (however vaguely) to some aspect of Stölzle’s durability
However, since they are dishwasher safe (top shelf) except for the “Fire” series, I decided to see how they would hold up through a few cycles. Chalk it up to variability in design of dishwashers, but the glasses did not fit in the top shelf of our dishwasher. However, they did fine through ten cycles in on the bottom shelf.
A few weeks after I completed my assessment, the bowl of the “Exquisit” Shiraz/Small Red Wine glass broke during hand washing (see slide show, below). There were no visible cracks or fractures after the dishwasher test, but its likely that – like with other crystal stemware – micro fractures had developed.
In my house, I am the designated stem washer – at least when it comes to the nicer stuff. I have broken my share of wine glasses (bowls and stems). Despite my frequency of glass use and washing, I can’t say if this one-in-11 rate of breakage (9%) is lower, on par with or above that of other producers’ stemware.
Above all considerations, Stölzle stemware offers exciting styling, great visual appeal in a wide selection of lead-free European crystal.
The pulled stem technology represents a significant production and technological improvement. I cannot speak to the actual stem durability of these glasses versus the competition as I did not make an assessment of this feature.
While the sensory assessments I conducted were interesting, there is no singular recommendation I can make of “The Best” glass in each category I assessed. These glasses performed differently, just like the wines for which they are intended vary between regions, vintages and producers.
The most valuable take-away point from this sensory assessment for the retail customer is this: If you generally drink a fairly specific selection of wines (varietal, or regional), then these findings can indicate which Stölzle stem will augment the qualities you like most in your wines. For restaurants and sommeliers, the value of this assessment is very similar: You can enhance your customers’ dining experience by selecting the glasses that best show the wines in your cellar.
My limited durability testing seems to indicate a good level of sturdiness, which is important to private consumers and restaurants alike.
The 2008 food service price list I received along with the samples indicates that the glasses I evaluated retail between $9 and $12 each. That is anywhere from one fourth to one half of the per-stem price of Riedel glasses (depending on line and style as well as retailer). I’m told that restaurants can expect to pay anywhere from 50% to 55% of the retail price.
Starting this year, U.S. distribution to restaurants and hotels is handled by Anchor Hocking. Retail customers can find Stölzle stemware at Sur La Table, Stew Leonard’s and other retail stores as well as multiple on-line venues, including the company’s on-line store.
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