Crystal Wine Glass Attributes
For style differences see Wine Glass Shapes
Clarity means free from distortion, designs, etchings and color. The glass should allow the color of the wine to show clearly and let ambient light pass through.
Wine glasses need a certain amount of thickness for strength but should be gracefully thin to show off the natural beauty of the wine. This is especially important at the rim of the glass, which should be perfectly smooth and barely noticeable at the mouth in order to enhance the tasting experience.
The stem is not only an aesthetic consideration but a practical one as well. Its purpose is to separate the warmth of the hand from the wine and preventing finger prints on the bowl while allowing one to properly swirl the contents. The length should be firmly but smoothly attached to both the bowl and the foot to prevent breakage.
The glass can be different heights but should always be elegant, balanced and remain stable. An ideal foot is wide enough to prevent tipping over, flat to prevent wobbling and always in proportion to the glass itself.
Hand or mouth-blown glasses are made as the name suggests by individual, highly-skilled artisans who control each aspect of the glasses they make. Thinner, lighter, perfectly balanced, these glasses are barely there, ensuring an optimum delivery of wine to palate. Not surprisingly, no two hand-blown glasses are exactly alike. There are minute differences which are a mark of authenticity or character. Most hand-blown glasses have a stem which is pulled from the bowl. This adds strength as well as beauty. The finest hand-blown glasses show the desirable qualities more than their machine-blown counterparts but the differences are narrowing. Click here to see a Riedel video showing the process.
Machine-made glasses are made by injecting molten glass into molds. Modern technology has continually improved the process to the point where these glasses are of very high quality. Some machine-made wine glasses even have pulled stems. Some have additional reinforcement where the stem meets the bowl or foot. One additional point is that the glasses are very uniformly made. There is virtually no variation in a production run.
Generally, dishwashers should be avoided for lead crystal. Not only is breakage likely for these softer glasses but the harsh alkaline chemicals in auto-dish detergents leave a residue and can actually etch the surface of the glass. This process is accelerated by the heating cycle at the end of the wash. This also applies to metal-accented glasses (gold trim).
An auto-dish product, Cascade Crystal Clear with Shine-Shield, has an additive designed to neutralize these caustic elements while preventing cloudiness and etching. Even so, it is best to use the "crystal/china" setting and air-dry cycle. Lead free crystal can be safely washed in a dishwasher but long stems are always an issue. There is an accessory called StemGrip that is designed to hold them securely. Update: A new product, Quantum Finish Powerball does a wonderful job on lead-free crystal glasses, leaving them sparkling clean at normal settings.
Traditionally, for sparkling clean glasses, we recommend washing by hand with a mild dishwashing soap (Ivory liquid is ideal). Follow this with a thorough hot rinse and dry quickly with a clean cotton or linen towel. Try to avoid twisting the stem counter to the rim as this can cause breakage at the weakest points, the rim and where the stem is attached to the base.
Clean wine decanters by filling them half-full with moderately hot water, a small amount of mild detergent (Ivory), two tablespoons of white vinegar and a half-cup of uncooked rice. Swirl the rice around to remove residue. Rinse well with moderately hot water and air dry upside down on a rack.
About Lead Crystal
Lead crystal, a heavy, durable glass prized for its brilliance and clarity, has traditionally been the material of choice for fine wine glasses since the 17th century. It added sparkle and clarity and the softer glass it produced made it easier to etch or engrave the intricate designs of the day. Fortunately, as concerns have surfaced regarding the long-term safety of lead crystal use, modern glass-makers have discovered non-toxic alternative additives that allow the same fine quality without the risk. Oxides and elements like Boron and Titanium add brilliance while producing a harder more resilient crystal.
How much risk is there?
Not so much for the wine glass user but more for the environment around the glass factory and the workers in it. However, there is general agreement that it's not a good idea to store acidic or alcoholic beverages in a lead crystal decanter as some leaching is a possibility.
The state of California does require the posting of Proposition 65 which warns of potential dangers, including birth defects, from consuming food or beverage served or kept in leaded crystal vessels.
As some of the finest stemware in the world is still available only in lead crystal, it will continue to be sold. But, it no longer should be a purchasing criterion. More of today's leading stemware manufacturers are producing their top brands exclusively from lead-free crystal.