The Elements: Red Wines

From left to right: WATER, FIRE, AIR, EARTH, GOLD

            This summer, crystal glassware producer Lucaris and I released the Elements, a collection of handblown glasses based on a novel and admittedly somewhat controversial premise.  We proposed that a wineglass’ most important job is to give you – the drinker – the perfect experience of the wine for you.  I add the words “for you” because most of the time in the wine world we seem to forget that regardless of what we think and say, wine consumers have their own opinions about what is enjoyable and what is swill. 

            Each glass in our collection is named after one of the basic “elements”: Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Gold.  They are meant to act as intuitive descriptors of different traits people enjoy in wine.  Some people like their wine bold and powerful, like fire; others like it cool and refreshing like water.  Our glasses work with whatever wine is poured into them to draw out those traits from the wine, making it bolder, fresher, more aromatic, rounder or whatever the drinker wants.  

Having now had several months to present this concept to new drinkers and experts alike, I have been astonished time and again by how big a difference the glasses make.  Terrifyingly, in some instances it seems to have a bigger impact than the grape variety.  The reasons for this are complex – including a combination of fluid dynamics and psychophysics – and not the subject of our discussion today.  Instead, I thought that as probably the most experienced user of these glasses (I now use them virtually every time I drink wine) I could help explain how each glass affects wine and hence which ones might best suit your wine tastes.  This month we’ll talk about red wines and in future we’ll look at whites and more. 

WATER – this glass, with its narrow and straight-sided rim and relatively tall, narrow bowl, may look like a white wine glass but it’s amazingly useful for cleaning up any sort of funkiness or excessive flab in reds. Big, chunky reds tend to come across as a little daintier in this glass and anything suffering from an excess of brettanomyces (sweaty or earthy notes) and/or volatile acidity (vinegar or nail polish remover aromas) comes out smelling a little fresher.  To my immense surprise, some wine loving friends and I found that of all the glasses, the Water was the one that most flattered a bottle of 1970s Barolo we opened late one night, making its otherwise slightly tired fruit feel vibrant and shimmering.    

FIRE – this is the go-to glass if you are someone who loves a big, fruit-packed Barossa Shiraz, Napa Cab or Amarone.  Not only will big wines feel like they have adequate breathing room in this glass, even less high-octane wines (Pinot Noir for example) will seem plusher and richer-fruited.  The ripples on the wide, flat bowl expose the wine to plenty of oxygen, helping unlock juicy fruit.  The wider rim and straight sides mean that the wine immediately floods your whole palate, giving you a sense of richness and fullness from the get go.  Acidity also seems a little softer and tannins more integrated thanks to the upfront blast of fruit.   

AIR – this has been an unexpected favourite among many of my wine-loving friends, who love how well it works with everything from champagne to sherry.  With a rounded, lantern-like belly that makes for easy swirling, this glass could tease perfume out of water, but the bowl’s tapered bottom keeps the wine from being overexposed to air and also keeps it nice and cool.  Its narrow rim not only helps concentrate aromas but also sharpens up the acidity and firms up the tannins, creating a beautifully balanced shape.  I do find this glass can render acidic reds a little shrill, so for those I’ll switch to Earth instead.  However, if you’re someone who swoons to charming aromatics (you like Barolo, Barbaresco, Burgundy and other Pinots, Etna, Rioja, Chinon, etc.) this is the one for you.  

EARTH – originally designed to flatter a wine’s rounder side, this glass has somehow also ended up emphasising savoury, “earthy” traits (perhaps it’s merely psychological, but to me it seems very clear).  With its rounded bowl, conspicuous lack of straight surfaces or hard angles and sensuously curved lip, the glass shape is all softness and wines served from it act accordingly.  One retailer remarked with surprise that the effect lingers well past the initial impression, with tannins feeling smoothened even after extensive swishing.  While I can’t fully explain the phenomenon – one theory is that the rounded lip makes you anticipate a rounded texture, just as Cadbury found its chocolate was perceived as sweeter when they rounded its formerly sharp corners – any time I have an overly gruff, tannic red I serve it in the Earth and it takes the edge off like a charm.

GOLD – to be honest, this is the one glass in the collection that is not truly as multipurpose as the others, having been specifically designed for sparkling and sweet wines.  However, in the interest of science, we have still frequently included it in our experiments.  It acts a bit like the water glass on steroids – sharpening up the acidity and firming up the tannins while moderating any sense of fullness in your red wine.  Given a tart, tough and skinny red is not likely to be many drinkers’ preference, I don’t think we’ll see many people using the Gold for reds, but if this is the way you like them, by all means give it a go.  


Shopping for Wine Online in Asia

Though the pandemic drove fear into the hearts of wine producers by triggering dramatic slowdowns in the hospitality and tourism industries, one speck of hope has remained the rise of wine e-commerce.  In fact, because it can help consumers who are interested in wine but live far from any brick and mortar wine retailers gain quick access to a broader selection of wines, wine e-commerce has great potential to help growing wine markets grow even more rapidly.  


In China where wine e-commerce is not heavily regulated, e-commerce players have played an ever more prominent role in the larger wine ecosystem, representing around 30% of pre-pandemic wine sales according to the IWSR.  Compared to more developed markets like the US and Japan, where online wine sales remain between 5-10% of the market, this is substantial.  Even though China’s overall wine market is predicted to remain below 2019 levels for the next five years, wine e-commerce is expected to grow as consumers have become used to more informal home wine consumption.

However, many markets throughout Asia still view wine e-commerce with caution.  Countries that regulate and tax wine heavily also tend to restrict its sale online.  Thailand is an exception, with importer/distributors also able to sell their products directly to consumers through websites and apps (although there are restrictions on direct advertising of alcohol).  In India and Taiwan, however, selling wine online is illegal and despite some workarounds (like telephoning in credit card numbers or primitive versions of click and collect) it remains virtually impossible.  Meanwhile, in South Korea selling wine online was legalised in April 2020 and pandemic-driven buying has driven both convenience stores’ and department stores’ wine sales through the roof, suggesting that there was latent desire for online wine purchasing, and not only in the mass market.  


In fact, there are many misleading stereotypes about the types of wine being purchased online.  When I was writing my research paper for the Master of Wine, which studied the online purchasing behaviours of young Chinese consumers, preliminary market interviews suggested that the wines being sold online were extremely cheap (RMB50 and below).  However, in my actual study the respondents chose wines between RMB150-200 and stated that this was the most common price bracket for them.  The price point of wines sold online in markets like Japan and Hong Kong may be even higher.  Thus, it makes sense that businesses are willing to invest in building online infrastructure even in markets where sales volumes aren’t that high.  


Something that does differ notably between markets is the demographics of online wine shoppers.  In my research on China, it appeared that the average online wine shopper was slightly more likely to be female and relatively young (most likely in her twenties or early thirties).  The relative inexperience of these consumers may explain why large brands have generally had an edge over the competition.  However, over the course of the pandemic I learned from internet denizens like Lady Penguin that large brands are starting to suffer relative to more differentiated products and even non-wine products like fruit wine.  The limited research I have seen about online wine shopping in Japan suggests that the demographic tends to be more heavily male, older and more experienced with wine, leading to more traditional products dominating online platforms.    


Wine e-commerce has several potential advantages for both the industry and consumers, other than the convenience and accessibility already mentioned.  One is the possibility of creating an interactive shopping experience and access to expertise that might not be available locally.  The content marketing model, adopted by influencers like Lady Penguin (Karla Wang) in mainland China, who uses short educational videos to help her fans learn wine basics and feel comfortable making purchase decisions, has great potential.  

Another is the possibility of using machine learning to generate better wine recommendations.  To be fair, I have yet to see any algorithm truly work as well as a personalised recommendation from a friendly wine merchant, but it remains an enticing goal.  

The final potential advantage of e-commerce is that it could allow small producers from overseas to connect directly with consumers in Asian markets without all the cost additions of middle men and all the carbon footprint of travel.  The spate of online tastings I have seen between producers in Europe, Africa, North America and Australasia and consumers in Asia suggests to me that it’s not outside the realm of possibility.  


If you’re new to online wine shopping, here are a few tips to maximise your chances of a good experience:

  1. The transparency of the internet makes it much harder to get away with outrageous prices, but it’s still worth checking a price comparison site like to make sure you’re getting a fair price.
  2. Big e-commerce platforms like T-mall or Taobao allow for easy price comparisons, but it’s very hard to know who the seller really is; even though their prices may be higher, I still recommend buying from a seller with their own website that has been around for at least 3-4 years.  
  3. It’s best to buy as directly as you can to minimise the number of stops a wine makes before it reaches your door; in markets where this is allowed, try buying directly from wine importers.  
  4. Even if a wine is stored perfectly, rough handling during last-mile delivery can ruin it (especially if you’re in a hot, tropical climate); if a website is offering free or very cheap delivery even on small quantities, it’s unlikely the wine is being handled properly.
  5. If you’re buying older or collectible wine, look for websites that give plenty of detail about the condition the wines are in; more reputable websites will let you know the fill level (the best is mid-neck, anything below top-shoulder isn’t great), whether a wine has any label damage and if it has the import label of another country e.g. a US import label means the wine went to the US before being re-exported to Asia. 

How to Think About Investing in Wine

Interest in wine investment has grown markedly over the past decade.  The apparent advantages are many: wine’s low correlation with traditional financial markets, comparatively low volatility and a history of delivering reliable returns.  However, as somebody who is at core a wine lover, the idea of purchasing wine purely for financial return makes me a little sad.  My own approach to wine “investment” is aimed at securing wines that I love today and believe may become unaffordable (or at least painfully expensive) in a few years’ time.  One historically popular hybrid approach is to buy two cases of a wine, one for drinking and one for selling, ideally generating enough profit to cover your costs. 

Points to Consider

Whatever the goal, anyone considering investing in wine should be aware of the challenges: one, unlike financial instruments or even real estate, wine doesn’t produce a series of cashflows.  In fact, the cash flows in the other direction; considerable funds need to be spent on storing wine properly to maintain its value.  If you plan to re-sell the wine, the standard goes way up (don’t imagine that a home wine fridge is sufficient).  A bonded warehouse in London like Octavian Vaults or London City Bond is the gold standard for most tradeable wines; often a private individual wouldn’t have their own account, they would store with a merchant who has one.  Expect to spend about £15 per case per year to store in these conditions.  

Understanding the different investment products is also quite complex.  Along with the list of property names (Châteaux in Bordeaux, or Domaines in Burgundy), each vintage needs to be considered individually.  In Burgundy, each Domaine also typically produces several cuvees (aka “labels” or “wines” in simpler terms).  Fortunately, there are an increasing number of online tools like Liv-Ex (the London International Vintners Exchange), a global marketplace for professional wine traders with useful price indices; Wine-Searcher (particularly a Professional account) is a great tool for determining individual wines’ prices; another data-driven tool, Wine-Lister, aggregates critics’ scores and past performance to generate a single score of a particular wine’s market potential. 

The market is also, ironically, quite illiquid.  Although Liv-Ex has a trading platform, it can only be used by professional traders so unlike equities, selling your wine is not as simple as pressing a button.  There aren’t instruments like reputable ETFs that allow you to buy a “basket” of products that is easily tradeable.  In lower-regulation markets like Hong Kong, there are plenty of merchants and even storage facilities who will help arrange fairly low-cost transactions for you, but whether you can achieve the price you would like for your wine (and how quickly) is far from guaranteed.  

Finally, there is the concern around authenticity.  Wines older than say 15 years old are less likely to have any sort of tracking mechanism and the paper trail may be incomplete.  Even setting aside outright counterfeits, you need to be aware of wines that may have been stored poorly, harming their quality (according to wine authenticator Maureen Downey, many wines that are damaged during hurricanes in the US end up on the Asian market with suspiciously cheap price tags, which is why many professionals are wary of US import labels).  If a price seems too good to be true, it definitely is.  

Of course, you can avoid this problem by investing in wines directly from the châteaux where possible or en primeur from established negociants, but then you are paying up front for wines that may not be ready to drink for many years (in the case of en primeur, they’re not even in bottle yet).  If you are investing in wine en primeur, you need to be aware that the contract for the wine usually exists between the château and the negociant – if the latter goes out of business before the contract is up you don’t necessarily have a way to claim your wine.  In most cases, I recommend against investing in en primeur wines if you’re just starting out.   

At this point you might be thinking that the best thing is to invest in a wine fund, which seems simpler because it’s managed for you by a wine investment expert.  However, these are typically unregulated, may use creative methods to value their portfolios, will often require that you invest for a considerable period of time (say five years), have long redemption periods and may struggle to divest themselves of assets (i.e. wine) in a falling market.  Some funds are so large that one of them deciding to sell a particular wine can tank that wine’s market price.  On top of all this, fees are at levels that any hedge fund manager would salivate over: a 15% upfront management fee, or 10% commissions on purchases and sales are far from unusual (compare this to 0% commissions on many stock trading apps).  Personally, I wouldn’t go down this track.   

What I Would Do 

            As I say, my own approach to investing in wine has been to focus on protecting my future self from being priced out of the market.  Looking at a resource like Liv-Ex, I can see clear differences in how certain regions have performed over the past five years.  Price growth for the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux has been comparatively slow (and recent growth has been slow or negligible), while for Burgundy it has been astronomical.  The first two are probably not going to suddenly become unaffordable (in fact, older vintages of Bordeaux have typically been less expensive than buying en primeur until the 2019 vintage), and Burgundy is arguably already too expensive, for me anyway.  Instead, I’m focused on Champagne and Italy, two regions that have seen considerable 5-year, 1-year, and month on month growth (and I also adore the wines).  

To continue my research, I might then glance at recent trade reports from organisations like Wine-Lister or consumer resources to figure out which brands are receiving a lot of attention.  If there’s one I don’t know, I would try to find some some mature examples from that brand to try.  Meanwhile, if one of my favourites has become a hot ticket, I know I need to buy quickly. 

I would then determine a budget for the year with roughly half spent on wine for drinking within the next 24 months (red wines that are 10-30 years old; whites and sparkling 5-20 years) and half on wine for laying down for 5-10 years (recent release wines that are at least 5 years old).  Over time I can reduce my budget for “drink now” wines as my “laying down” wines become ready to drink.  The “laying down” wines should be ones that I expect to appreciate enough in price to more than cover the cost of 5-10 years’ storage.  That storage may not be too expensive if it’s just a large wine fridge at home, which can be good enough if you’re only cellaring wine for yourself (i.e. not to re-sell).  

Having done a little bit of homework, now would be the time to go to a traditional merchant with a good reputation (many from the UK) and ask for some personalised advice based on your tastes and expectations.  Berry Brothers and Rudd, Corney and Barrow, Farr Vintners, Goedhuis & Co, Fine + Rare, Bordeaux Index and many others have offices in Asia with knowledgeable sales teams.  Because this is a very competitive space, these merchants’ pricing tends to be reasonable.  Also, if you buy through them, most have storage in the UK that you can rent for less hassle then getting your own account.  While other channels like auctions offer the chance of a really good deal, I feel that the high-adrenaline environment of an auction (even an online auction) is too risky until you’ve developed a more instinctive sense of what various wines should cost.    

You won’t always get it right: many wines you buy won’t appreciate in price at all and are widely available pre-aged, so in five years you may be kicking yourself for going to the effort of storing them.  On the other hand, some wines won’t appreciate in price but are impossible to find with any age on them, so even though it may not have been a good financial investment, your ten year-old Oregon Pinot may be virtually priceless to you.  Over time you will develop a better sense of which wines tend to rise in price and which don’t and hopefully you will have many happy experiences enjoying your wines along the way! 


Introducing The Elements

When I first began to collaborate with Lucaris Crystal in late 2017, we quickly started discussing a potential glassware range.  As both a Master of Wine and a visual artist and designer, I felt it was extra important that I rise to the challenge and that our project be boundary-pushing and different.

In approaching any design project, the most important consideration is always what problem you’re trying to solve.  For me the issue with so many glassware designs is that they aim to bring out the “perfect” expression of a particular wine but the designers seem to have forgotten that perfection is deeply subjective. 

To develop a more nuanced idea of perfection, we began to research systems for understanding personal preferences in ways that were intuitive rather than overly technical.  I was quickly drawn to the idea of the elements, which spans several Asian cultures as well as classical western thought.  Lucaris, being a Thai brand, naturally brings an Asian perspective to all its projects – its core glassware ranges are named after Asian cities – and as a Eurasian person, I liked the idea of bridging cultures.  

The team at Lucaris was immediately enthused about both the concept and a potential link with my art.  Before I joined the wine world, I studied painting at Yale University, and my recent work called Visual Tasting Notes explores our subjective experience of wine, charting the overall “shape” a wine makes as we taste it. Glassware is critical in molding this shape – it can exaggerate or diminish a wine’s fragrance, amplify or moderate its acidity, harden or soften its tannins.  

We thought in detail about how each feature of the glass – the dimensions of the bowl, its proportions and curvature – would impact the wine’s expression.  We made a few interesting observations.  One was the effect of rim tightness on our perception of texture.  A tight rim feels hard and angular on the lips and exaggerates this effect in the wine, while a flared rim makes us perceive the wine as rounded and soft.  Another was that tight concave curves in the glass – we called them “waists” – help to hold in aromas while the wine sits in the glass, but then releases aromas as wine flows over the curves on its way to the mouth.  

We combined these features to create five unique shapes corresponding with five elements we chose from Ayurveda, Traditional East Asian Medicine and ancient Greek philosophy: Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Gold. Each glass emphasizes its “element” in the wine: Air brings out fragrance, Water brings out freshness, Fire brings out boldness, Earth brings out roundness and Metal brings out brilliance.  Each glass is designed for use with any wine style – white, red, rosé, even sparkling, sweet or fortified.  

An added benefit is that the system of elements should make food pairing, always challenging in Asia, easier to navigate.  Cuisines, like personalities, can often be fit into element-based categories: sashimi is cool and subtle like water and thus a suitable wine pairing would probably also be fresh and subtle.  

To create these unique, highly specific shapes, we quickly agreed we needed to work with hand blowers.  This was a new horizon for Lucaris, which up until now has worked exclusively with machine-blown crystal.  We believe that people who have deep respect for wine and want to experience it in the best way possible for them will gladly invest in top quality, especially since these multipurpose glasses allow you to cover all your needs with just one or two designs.  I couldn’t be more excited that the collection is finally hitting the market this month!


How to Spot a Quality Wineglass

Wine glasses are a big part of the culture and theatre of wine – one of the first things you notice about a fine dining restaurant, particularly a western-style one – is the glassware on the table.  If a friend hands you a glass of wine on your way into a party, the quality of the glass she hands you will say a lot about the wine inside.  

While it may seem like this is placing too much weight on presentation, in reality the quality of the glass has a significant impact on the way you experience the wine.  Thus it is well worth spending some time understanding the key signs of quality so you can be sure you’re not missing out on a great experience by using glassware that’s not up to standard.

The first point to consider is clarity.  Just like when we taste wine, our eyes are the first tools we use to judge the quality of a glass.  A wineglass made from crystal (which contains lead) or crystalline glass (which does not) will have much greater brilliance and clarity than one made from soda-lime glass (the type of glass used for windows, most bottles and jars).  Imperfections like bubbles or a noticeable blue or green tint are another sign that an inferior raw material has been used.  Another way to detect whether the glass is made of crystal or glass is to tap widest part of the bowl with your fingernail – it should make a beautiful ringing sound like a bell.  Crystal is much more durable than glass and therefore is less likely to chip or crack over time.  

The second point to consider is weight.  Although crystal and crystalline glass are denser than glass, their added strength means that they can be blown super thin and so crystal glasses can be much thinner and lighter than glass ones.  The distribution of weight is also really important: the base should be heavy and wide so that the glass doesn’t tip over easily.  However, the weight of the base and the weight of the bowl must be balanced so that the glass is comfortable to hold and to swirl.  Embellished cut crystal wine glasses are often beautiful to look at but they add a lot of weight and can obscure the wine in the glass.

The third key place to look for wine glass quality is the rim.  A rolled rim, which is clearly noticeable as it is thicker than the bowl below it, gives a less refined experience than a laser-cut rim.  To experience this effect more clearly, exaggerate it by drinking wine out of a thick mug with a rounded lip: the wine will seem thick and clumsy.  However, a laser cut rim is more fragile than a rolled one and so the glass needs to be made out of high quality crystal to ensure it doesn’t chip too easily.  

Another point of interest is whether the glass is hand blown or machine blown.  Hand blowing is a highly skilled craft practiced by an increasingly small group of trained artisans and is much more time-consuming than machine blowing, so hand blown glasses are more expensive.  However, machine blown quality has improved so much over the years that these days most companies are using machines for standard shapes.  For unique shapes, however, hand blowing is sometimes the only option as it’s only worthwhile to create a new mould for a glassblowing machine if the product run is large.  An insider tip for how to spot a machine blown vs a hand blown glass is that there is may be a very subtle indent on the bottom of the base of machine blown glasses, but often only trained glassblowers can detect it.  

Just to be clear, what we’ve discussed only relates to quality and doesn’t relate to shape.  I personally feel strongly that there is no ideal glass for each wine – drinking a Riesling out of a Bordeaux glass if you like the effect is not going to “ruin” the wine.  It’s all a matter of personal taste and setting.  Hold that thought for later this month, when I’ll be introducing the new collection I developed with Lucaris Crystal. Stay tuned!