The traditional champagne flute and flat coupe glass are fine for young wines – but for complex older champagnes, only a wide glass that curves back in towards the top and is filled only a little way will present the bubbles correctly.
Champagne is liquid decadence, a golden drink for the most special occasions. The satisfying pop of the cork announces the release of aromas and flavors that have been years in the making. But how do you make the most of the potential in the bottle? Take your bubbles seriously.
New Year’s Eve is champagne’s big moment, and it would be terrible to waste it.
Bubbles are not just pretty novelties dancing in your glass. They play a vitally important role in your perception of the drink. But to get them to play that role, you need to provide the right working environment: the glass. And this is where a bit of science can help the sommelier.
Just before you uncork the bottle, the pressure inside is five to six times as great as the pressure in the room. That’s why champagne bottles have to be so thick – each one is a prison fortress, keeping the pressurized fluid confined. As soon as the cork is gone, the huge amount of gas dissolved in the liquid can start to escape.
But bubbles won’t form unless they’ve got a starting point. Any slightly rough surface will do, so you’d better have polished the glass or the bubbles will tell tales on you. If there are any specks of dust or fibre inside the glass, you’ll see a stream of bubbles coming from that point. The only acceptable place for bubbles to start is the centre of the bottom of the glass, and the manufacturers of posh glasses will etch the surface there to roughen it and make sure the bubbles start where they’re supposed to.
A clean glass will have a narrow plume of bubbles, and the bubbles get larger and faster as they rise. This is the engine of the drink, because they drag liquid with them up to the top, and then that liquid has to travel back down the sides. It’s like an underwater fountain, and the taller the glass, the more vigorous it is. More than that, aromatic molecules stick to the bubbles and so are delivered directly to the surface. And then when the bubbles pop, they spit tiny droplets upwards, putting aroma molecules into the air space at the top of the glass, and also up your nose. Smell is a huge component of taste, so bubbles are giving you flavor even before you sip.
Once you know all of that, you can start to fit the glass to the task. The traditional flat coupe glass has a very slow bubble engine because bubbles don’t get to rise very far. Flavor is delivered to the air gradually, but escapes from the space above the glass very quickly. The tall thin flute has a very powerful bubble engine, delivering lots of flavor very quickly, and spitting lots of fizz upwards. But there’s so little air space at the top of the glass that this flavor is mostly lost to the surroundings. This is fine for young wines, but doesn’t allow complexity to develop. So the recent solution dreamt up by Philippe Jamesse (head sommelier at Les Crayères in Rheims), and backed up by Gerard Liger-Belair (a champagne bubble physicist) is very simple. For these complex older champagnes, use a wide glass that curves back in towards the top, but only fill it a little way. The shallow liquid means that small slow bubbles can deliver aromas slowly, allowing complexity to develop, and the large space at the top of the glass traps it for you to enjoy.
This is similar advice to that given by Richard Geoffroy, the Chef de Cave at Dom Pérignon. He recommends serving older champagne in white wine glasses because flutes “stifle the flavor”. Jamesse has taken it a step further; he has designed glasses for different types of champagne based on this principle. The older the champagne, the wider the glass.
So to make the most of your bubbly and its bubbles as you welcome in 2018, have a think about the glass you’re putting it in. And a happy bubbly new year to you all!