Wine sommeliers and aficionados share one strong belief when it comes to wine glasses: the best wine glasses in the world are made of crystal. Most have a collection of crystal glasses that they use specifically based on the grape and age of the wine. Whether you are well schooled in wine glass etiquette, or just beginning, having a collection of lead crystal, or unleaded crystal glasses will provide you with the best experience possible in enjoying fine wines.
Standards Used to Categorize Crystal
The British Standard is used by manufacturers worldwide to categorize crystal. There are no standards set by any authoritative agency in the United States. The British Standard (BS 3828:1973) sets three categories: fine crystal, lead crystal and full lead crystal.
For a glass to qualify as fine crystal, it must contain 6 to 10 percent lead oxide. The quality of craftsmanship is also taken into account. The British standard for lead crystal is that the glass contains 10 to 24 percent lead oxide. Finally, full lead crystal must contain at least 24 percent lead oxide.
Full and Lead Crystal
Full and lead crystal wine glasses remain the "glasses of choice" by wine sommeliers and connoisseurs. They view the properties of lead crystal as unmatched by any other type of crystal or glass in providing the optimal experience of taste and smell when enjoying fine wines. Lead crystal wine glasses are heavier in weight than fine crystal because the glasses have the highest concentration of lead. A clear crystal glass, void of ornamentation, enables the wine drinker to appreciate the wine's color and complexities, from the bottom of the bowl of the glass to the surface of the wine. Crystal glasses maintain the temperature of the wine, whether the wine is served at close to room temperature or chilled, which is the most favorable condition when drinking fine and expensive wines, to keep the character of the wine from being adulterated.
The bottom-line difference between crystal and glass is the lead content. The surface of crystal is also rougher in texture than glass. The uneven surface gives crystal the ability to release esters. The esters optimize the aroma of wines poured into a crystal glass and trigger human olfactory capabilities to heighten the sense of smell. Human taste buds are actually less sensitive than the capability to sense smell. Consequently, the ability of crystal to amplify the wine's aroma or "bouquet" makes crystal glasses the best choice for those who want to experience and appreciate all the subtle and complex nuances of fine, aged wines.
Scientific studies have shown that lead, which is toxic, can dissolve into acidic beverages. It has been shown that wine will dissolve more lead than distilled spirits such as scotch or vodka. Additionally, the longer wine is stored in a crystal decanter, the more lead it will absorb.
Given consumer health concerns about lead, many manufacturers are expanding their lines to include unleaded crystal wine glasses. The glasses display similar desirable properties as leaded crystal, in terms of maintaining the temperature of the wine and providing the experiential benefits of heightened smell and visibility. Using composition alternatives such as barium carbonate and strontium, zinc and titanium oxides makes the glasses comparable to leaded crystal in terms of heightening the aroma and maintaining the wine's temperature in the glass. Unleaded crystal alternatives are offered by leading global manufacturers of crystal wine glasses including Ravenscroft, Schott, Stolzle and Spiegelau - a subsidiary of the world-famed Reidel company of Austria.
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