Few people could have predicted the explosion of super-expensive, wine-specific glassware that has emerged over the past few decades. Wine lovers already knew that a good wine glass should have a stem and be broadly tulip shaped, made of clear glass, and have a bowl big enough to allow gentle swirling. That basic formula continues to serve wine drinkers well, but a new breed of fine glassware began to emerge. Supposedly designed with scientific methodology, the glasses promised to enhance the wine experience. Precise sizes and designs were tailored to specific wine styles, even to specific grape varieties.
The world of über stemware was pioneered by a family glass company from Austria called Riedel, who launched their first grape-specific glasses in the 1960s. Riedel’s business boomed globally as their glassware became the dominant name for high-end retail and hospitality. Though cheaper machine-made versions have joined the line-up, their premium, mouth-blown crystal ranges now sell for up to £100 per glass.
Riedel had rolled the first snowball in what would become an avalanche. Not only did traditional UK glassware companies like Dartington begin to design and sell their own wine-specific glasses at prices they might previously have thought fanciful, but contenders in the truly super-elite glassware sector began to nip at Riedel’s heels. Some bit off a sizeable chunk of the connoisseur market.
Principal among these was Zalto. Launching with an incredibly fine, unusually shaped range of hand-made crystal glasses in the early 2000s, the glassware quickly developed a cult following. This was another Austrian family company that could trace its glass-making history back to the 18th century. Designer was sixth generation Kurt Josef Zalto.
Zalto’s distinctive glassware captivated sommeliers and wine lovers, but as Kurt Josef Zalto told Forbes magazine in 2020, “in order to be able to grow faster I made the compromise of accepting foreign investors into my company.” That investment, however, turned sour. “My way of making glasses, my love of detail and craftsmanship was quickly overshadowed by financial interests.” Exactly what ensued is known only to those involved, but the upshot was that Kurt Josef Zalto left the company, which retained the ‘Zalto’ name.”
Kurt Josef Zalto meets Josephine
After six generations the Zalto company is no longer in Zalto family hands. Kurt Josef Zalto, however, has bounced back, founding his own company, Josephinenhütte and introducing the ‘Josephine’ glass collection. Jospehine launched in the US to much acclaim, and as of May 2023, is now available in the UK.
If you are familiar with the original Zalto range you will recognise the extraordinarily lightweight feel and paper-thin rim of the new glasses, but the form is very different.
Kurt Josef Zalto stresses that the Josephine glass’s unusual design is not a gimmick but serves to improve the wine experience: “The design ensures that part of the wine is refracted on its way to the rim and flows back into the glass in a spiral movement, this way it absorbs a great deal of oxygen and can develop perfectly.” Despite their air-like feeling of fragility the glass also has a degree of flexibility, meaning they are more robust than you might think possible.
I lined up three of the four wine glasses in the range: white wine, red wine and Champagne glasses, to compare with some of my current favourite glassware. There is a fourth glass, the ‘universal’. In shape it is very similar to the white wine glass, but in terms of its width it sits between the white and red glasses.
Here the Josephine was compared with the Veritas Champagne glass from Riedel.
The first Champagne chosen was the Taittinger Prelude Brut, a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend aged a minimum of five years. It is on the richer side with around 9g/l dosage. In the Veritas the wine is extremely creamy and biscuity on the nose. The Josephine is similar, but adds a touch of meatiness, a yeasty umami nuance. The palate in Veritas is lovely, a shimmering lemon jelly freshness over the truffle character. From Josephine, the character is noticeably more vibrant and crisper. If the Riedel seem a little more concentrated, the Josephine counters with its luminescence. Both glasses deliver long, balanced finish, but the Josephine enhances the wine’s clarity.
I then lined-up the Roederer Collection 242 Brut, a wine that included 44% of reserve wines, some fermented in oak, with 8g/l dosage. I would normally expect it to be a little tauter that the Prelude. The aromatics were similar in both glasses, but again enhanced a little by the Josephine. A little more toast was apparent, the palate a little more luminous once again. The Riedel delivered a rich, satisfying experience, but the Josephine shines a light on every facet of the wine in glittering style.
I lined up the Riedel Vinum Chardonnay glass against the Josephine white wine glass to taste the Heggies Vineyard, Cloudline Chardonnay 2021. It’s a £23 Chardonnay from higher altitude vineyards in the Eden Valley that sees ageing in French oak, but only a very small percentage of new oak. In a Josephine glass, a delicacy that is missing from the wine tasted in Riedel, seeming to express a slightly more mineral character, and the aromatics certainly enhanced. The Riedel shows the oak a little more. In the mouth from the Riedel, quite a substantial texture and a fairly robust, fat lemony concentration of fruit. Again, the Josephine brings a sense of precision through the mid-palate, the wine somehow appearing not only tighter, but lighter. The finish from the Riedel glass has plenty of pithy, intense citrus and a touch of salt. The finish in the Josephine is similar, perhaps that crispness emphasised once more. The Josephine glass seemed to express this wine more elegantly.
I decided to taste from a Riedel Ouverture Magnum glass against the Josephine. The wine I chose was the Ramón Bilbao Rioja Límite Sur 2019, a wine made from high-altitude Garnacha and aged in 225-litre French casks. It sells for £20. In the Riedel it expressed a svelte, floral-touched creaminess, the subtle oak not masking a cranberrylike, crunchy fruit. In the Josephine, the coffee-ish background of oak seemed much more apparent, the fruit still in the red fruit spectrum, but more like cherry touched with tobacco. More complex in the Josephine, slightly silkier on the palate too.
I couldn’t resist also lining up one of my favourite glasses, the original Denk’Art Zalto red Burgundy glass to compare. The wine was a modest one: the Louis Latour Bourgogne ‘La Chanfleure’ Pinot Noir 2020, which also sells for around £20. In the Zalto it was immediately meaty and umami-like, mushroom and redcurrant fruit too. From the Josephine more subtlety and more elegance, the meatiness toned down, fruit prettier and a little brighter. The palate delivered a very similar experience in both glasses. Once again, the Josephine just a touch more elegance; the Zalto a touch more grip.
The Josephine glasses are superb. Aesthetically, I love the shape and they are a delight to hold with feather-light weight and perfect balance. But what really impressed me was the transparent way they allowed the wines to express themselves. As I say above, shining a light on each facet of the wine.
The glasses are expensive by any reckoning at around £70 each. Some may baulk at the price, but in terms of form and function they get a strong recommendation from me.