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The History of the Wine Glass

  • After writing my email last weekend, about the history of wine, I started thinking about what topic to cover next and the history of the wine glass seemed an obvious choice. 

Andi Healey

Web Manager


People have been using glass to drink wine from since ancient times, but the modern-day design we think of – essentially a bowl, a stem and a base – is medieval. The glass as we know it probably emerged around 1400 in Venice. 

Back then, Venice was the centre of the glassblowing world. The Venetians had learnt how to purify their alkaline source which meant that they could make “cristallo” – a very sought-after form of clear glass. However, when the Venetian glassmakers began to purify their raw materials to remove elements that caused discolouration, they inadvertently removed some of the things that were making the glass durable, like lime, which acted as a stabiliser.

This meant that the original clear glasses could start to deteriorate quite quickly in normal air. 

The symptoms of "glass disease" were initially “weeping”, when moisture caused alkali to be leached out of the glass, and “crizzling”, a series of very fine cracks caused by the loss of alkali that eventually caused the glass to fall apart. 


In the 17th Century, the English began to follow in the footsteps of the Venetians and create a glass industry of their own.

A crucial moment in the development of glass came when the Royal Navy asked glassmakers to stop cutting down oak trees to fuel their fires. They were depleting the forests of trees needed for ship building.

So English glassmakers turned to sea-coal. This burned to much higher temperatures, creating hotter furnaces, which immediately strengthened the glass. (This stronger glass also produced stronger bottles, which played a crucial role in the birth of champagne. Fermenting wine was shattering French bottles all over the shop, but the English starting re-bottling their imported French wine and fizzy wine could begin to be celebrated.)

In the 1670's George Ravenscroft was put in charge of trying to make glass better and more beautiful. He added lead oxide and flint to the mix, which made the glass stronger still, and gave it the look of crystal.This is because lead oxide affects how the light passes through – it causes the different colours in light to travel at different speeds, a process known as dispersion.


In the early 1700s the wine glass was kept away from the drinker. You glass would have been brought to you by your footman or your valet, who would also fill it up for you. You’d then glug down its contents and hand it back to them. But through the late 1700s and into the 1800s, the wine bottle moved to the dinner table, and so did the glass.

Finally, the ability to top oneself up without being judged by the staff!

With glasses on the table there was a desire for more elegant, sophisticated models. Wine glasses got taller and more elegant, and stems got longer, with twists and little bulges called “knops”. But the aesthetically pleasing stem had a practical purpose too.

Wines should be served at the correct temperature but they can easily grow too warm with a big, hot hand around the bowl. Not only did holding a glass by the stem look effete and elegant, it also helped wine to remain at its peak optimum temperature.

1800s and Onward

Wines should be served at the correct temperature but they can easily grow too warm with a big, hot hand around the bowl. Not only did holding a glass by the stem look effete and elegant, it also helped wine to remain at its peak optimum temperature.

One reason as to why they started small was the huge tax on glass, that existed for around a hundred years from the 1700's to the mid 1800's.When that financial pressure was removed, the wine glass grew.  

Anatomy of a Wine Glass

The shape of the glass affects how we taste wine We’ve all seen people sticking their whole nose inside a fishbowl-sized glass, which holds just a tiny puddle of red wine at the bottom. But is the big claret balloon actually helpful?

The truth is that the shape of the glass will affect how much wine gets into our mouth, whether it travels across the tongue to the back or spreads to the sides. So different glasses can make the same wine taste different. Maximilian Riedel tells a story of how his grandfather, Claus Riedel an apprentice glassmaker in Italy in the 1950's, would invite friends round and they would drink wine from all the different, experimental shapes that he had been working on. Even though they were drinking the same wine, his friend's opinions on it's quality were hugely diverse, leading him to suspect that the shape and size of the glass was influencing the taste. Thus, the grape specific shapes that we use today were born. It's also worth noting that all wine glasses prior this were straight sided, the "egg" shaped design of modern wine glasses was another Claus Riedel innovation.

With a wide bowl you are also increasing the surface area of the wine and that’s increasing its contact with oxygen, which will release more of the volatiles.Getting your nose right in there means those aromas are funnelled into your nose and not your neighbours, and that you’re still saturated with them when you take your first mouthful. This all adds to the tasting experience.

The rim

Determines where the wine is directed onto the tongue and so the brain's initial perception of the taste.

The bowl

This is the part that holds the wine. Aim to fill the glass around one third, or to where the bowl is at its widest – to maximise the wine’s contact with the air. Bowls are often tapered to concentrate and direct the aromas to your nose. This allows you to swirl the wine around the glass (further releasing the aromas) without spilling any onto your shirt!

The stem

This is the part you hold, and it connects the base and the bowl.

The base or foot

This part needed to keep the wine glass standing.

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