© Gérard Liger-Belair/iStock/AFP |
Pop! The Champagne cork just flew off at 30 mph, and as much as 80 percent of the CO2 contained in the bottle raced out into your dining room. Better drink up fast!
Opening the bottle carefully is one of the ways to most enjoy a bottle of sparkling wine, says Gérard Liger-Belair, a physicist who has written a book on the topic.
Liger-Belair became interested in the science of Champagne while languorously drinking a beer after his finals at Paris University more than 20 years ago. He liked the sound, a small popping you can hear as the bubbles burst at the surface. He liked the way they propelled the drink’s aroma into the air. And he found the bubbles at the surface of the glass beautiful.
Many physicists might have been content to study the bubbles of beer. But this was Paris, and a French physicist. So he went to nearby Reims, in the heart of Champagne, to study, photograph and occasionally drink bubbles. There are worse jobs.
While there, he also observed a change in world taste. In the recent past, Champagnes with bigger bubbles were considered better. But perhaps because of the proliferation of sparkling wines made through methods other than secondary fermentation in the bottle, today there is a desire for finer bubbles.
If finesse is what you seek, here’s how to find it.
“The two main factors responsible for finesse of the bubbles are the level of dissolved CO2 in the Champagne, and the height of the glass,” Liger-Belair says.
Let’s take those factors one at a time. First, how much CO2 do you have?
The average bottle of Champagne contains about 9 grams of dissolved CO2 – enough to produce about 20 million bubbles. You don’t want to have no CO2, because then you’ve got flat wine; ugh. What you might want is a wine with less than the average amount.
“The age of the Champagne is a parameter of importance,” Liger-Belair says. Corks do not provide an absolute seal, so some CO2 escapes over the years. “Old Champagnes show small bubbles because of their age.”
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Another factor is the amount of sugar added to the bottle for secondary fermentation. More sugar = more bubbles. Drier Champagnes will generally have a finer mousse. This is part of the reason for the current trend for zero-dosage sparkling wines.
In Franciacorta, Italy, vintners produce a style of wine they call satèn with fewer bubbles. Maurizio Zanella, president of Ca’ del Bosco in Franciacorta, said: “You can eat without turbulence in the stomach. You don’t have to burp. These are wines you can eat with, but with quality.”
Now, let’s talk about glassware.
The last 30 years have seen a complete shift in Champagne glasses from the wide, shallow coupe that was allegedly modeled on Marie Antoinette’s breast.
In order to showcase the bubbles, restaurants moved to the flute – a tall, narrow glass.
“Bubbles grow in size as they rise toward the Champagne surface,” Liger-Belair says, and today this is a mixed blessing. You can see more and bigger bubbles in a flute with a large pour, and for this reason it’s still the right glass for celebrations such as weddings, where the visual aspect is most important.
However, many winemakers, sommeliers and glass producers have discovered that the flute is not the best way to drink Champagne because it concentrates CO2 at the top of the glass, making it painful to try to enjoy the aroma.The chief executive of Riedel, Maximilian Riedel, is even waging war on the flute. “It is my goal that the flute will be obsolete by the day that I pass away,” he recently declared.
He’s supported by leading Champagne producers, including Krug and Dom Pérignon. Olivier Krug told Wine-Searcher that a flute “can never express” the generosity of its Grande Cuvée; he worked with Riedel for five months to design and develop a glass specific to the wine – Le Joseph. Likewise, Dom Pom’s cellar master, Richard Geoffroy, is no fan of the flute. He recommends a Spiegelau Authentis for the house’s vintage Cuvée and a Riedel Vinum XL pinot noir glass for its Rosé.
“I like the Riedel Champagne glass,” says Hugh Davies, CEO of Schramsberg, a sparkling-wine specialist based in Napa. “It is bowled at the bottom and a bit more narrow at the rim. This really helps us enjoy the aroma of the sparkling wine. I am not a fan of really tall flutes. They may assist in presenting bubbles, but they aren’t as good for exploring the aromas and flavors of the wine.”
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Liger-Belair is working on designing the perfect Champagne glass, so look out, Riedel. For now, he recommends using a white wine glass for enjoying the aroma, with a larger pour than you would use for still wine. Test this for yourself: the higher the pour level, the more bubbles you will see, even though the level of dissolved CO2 is the same.
Don’t use a wide glass unless you’re trying to tame an overly bubbly wine, in which case you can follow a trend among some high-end sommeliers: decant it.
And don’t worry about getting your glasses precision-cleaned. Bubbles don’t form on perfectly flat surfaces; they form on microscopic particles like dust, or imperfections in the glass itself. Gas builds up there, trying to escape the liquid, until it makes its race to the surface.Visually, sparkling rosé is prettiest, and not just for the color. “The foam of rosé Champagne seems more persistent, probably because of the tannins found in red wine,” Liger-Belair explains.
To preserve the bubbles, you should keep a stopper in the wine while it’s in the ice bucket, and certainly overnight in the refrigerator. The firmer the seal, the better it will preserve the wine; the idea that something like a teaspoon on top will help is an old wives’ tale.
“Inevitably, the second time the Champagne will be served, its level of dissolved CO2 will be less than the first time,” Liger-Belair says.
No matter what stopper you use, CO2 will escape the liquid to fill the space under the cork. The more wine you drink, the larger that space gets. So the more delicate your bubbles are to start with, the more imperative it is to finish that bottle tonight.
That gets back to your bottle-opening technique. If you can ease off the cork, you’ll preserve those precious bubbles that Dom Pérignon allegedly called “drinking the stars.” That quote may be apocryphal, but looking at Liger-Belair’s photographs, it also seems accurate.