Tuesday 16 April 2019

A matter of size

A study of wine glass capacity through the ages has only just come to my attention. Published by the BMJ, perhaps it has only just come to my attention because the original study came out at a Christmas time, when I had possibly consumed too many large glasses to notice it.

“Wine glass capacity in England,” they report, “has increased, from a mean 66 ml in 1700 to 449 ml in 2017.”

(The term “mean” is being used here in a mathematical sense, although it would indeed seem appropriate to refer to a glass holding 66ml of wine as mean. In fact, downright miserly.)

My father-in-law deploys a battalion of similarly tiny crystal glasses on his dining table, which are beautiful but completely impractical. I can accept a tiny glass for grappa, or a similar digestif – but not, surely, for wine? Now I wonder if he has been preserving a tradition, since glasses seem from this study to have been less than 140ml when his Pall Mall club was founded.

The BMJ study is not particularly interested in why glass sizes have increased. The study acknowledges “changes in several factors including price, technology, societal wealth, and wine appreciation.” You could sum it up by saying that glass sizes increased because they could.

No, being the BMJ, the study is really interested in the killjoy notion that, if you take people back to smaller glasses, they will consume less wine. 

“Studying wine glasses’ capacity over time,” say the authors, “is an initial step in considering, firstly, whether any changes in their size may have contributed to the steep rise in wine drinking seen in the past few decades and, secondly, whether reducing wine glass size may help cut consumption.”

And the prospect of this relies upon something they grandly call “the unit bias heuristic” – the idea that you feel you have had “a slice of cake” or “a glass of wine”, no matter how large (or small) the slice or the glass may be.

Well. I can only think of those trendy little coloured macaroons – sorry, macarons – from places like LadurĂ©e. You know the ones; one less O in the spelling, one more 0 on the price.

I do not feel I have “had a macaroon” when I have had one of those, because a macaroon is supposed to be something the size of a saucer, not a coat button. And when I have a small glass of wine, I think yes, that tasting sample was fine, can I have the drink now please?

The tiny glasses on my father-in-law’s table do not decrease consumption, because his son and I are determined to make the most of the lovely clarets that are brought to it. We are not embarrassed to refill our glasses after each sip, or to keep the bottle at our end of the table in order to do so, transgressing proper dinner table behaviour as we must. But we do lament the way it hinders our proper appreciation of the wine.

“Larger wine glasses,” the BMJ admit, “can also increase the pleasure from drinking wine.” I think we know that wine served in larger glasses is more enjoyable, because the wine can aerate, the bouquet has more of a chance to circulate, and your nose can get into the glass to appreciate it.

The BMJ worry that this “may in turn increase the desire to drink more.” But if you make wine a less enjoyable experience, will consumption actually fall? Not if you judge by the mass-market popularity of terrible wine.

In fact, the opposite can surely be argued. The better the wine in our glass, on the whole, the less we drink of it. The more intense and powerful the experience, the more you savour and prolong it. So there is surely an argument that, by enhancing the wine experience with a larger glass, the less you will actually consume.

Do you pour more wine into a larger glass? Just because it takes more, doesn’t mean that you fill it. Not just to allow air to circulate, and enhance the aeration and bouquet; but because there’s something vulgar about an overfilled glass. And the greater the size of the glass, the greater the potential for vulgarity.

My magnificent Riedel sommelier glass  is the size of a small coconut, and would actually contain an entire bottle. Needless to say, it has never done so.

And as my brother-in-law and I panic at the thought of the tiny fractions of a bottle we are consuming, and constantly refill our little glasses, there’s even an argument that we might be drinking more than if we were slowly swirling and savouring the wine in larger glasses.

At the end of the day, this is why most serious wine drinkers talk in terms of bottles, rather than glasses. Not because we are necessarily in the habit of drinking wine by the bottle ourselves – but because we now acknowledge its widely accepted 75cl measure. So we talk of drinking half a bottle with supper, or sharing a half-bottle with lunch, or ordering a bottle between friends. 

There is no such measure as “a glass”; it is at best a euphemism. And at worst, mean.


1 comment:

  1. Those tiny glasses from 1700 were surely toasting glasses – you knocked them back in a single gulp and moved on to the next toast, and so on through half the night, before moving on to the serious drinking. Georgian boozing was pretty impressive: Dr Johnson could drink three bottles of port straight off, Pitt the Younger would down a bottle of same before giving a speech in Parliament, where everyone was sozzled most of the time anyway. Admittedly a bottle then was a pint rather than 75cl, and port was under 20pc by vol, but that's still pretty good going. Cheers!


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