Bursting bubbles

Bubbles: the French didn’t like them back in the 17th century, but they’re fond of them now.

Bubbles: the French didn’t like them back in the 17th century, but they’re fond of them now.

We separate the fact from the fizz in the mythology of sparkling wine

No other style of wine is surrounded by so much lore, mystery and sophisticated connoisseurship than sparkling wine—particularly so in its champagne* guise. It is an irreplaceable part of the world of wine, as much so as it is indispensable. Without it there would be no wedding toasts, no Formula 1 podium antics, and—at least at my office—no proper Monday lunch. Yet champagne and its sparkling wine offshoots are all the result of an accident. Yes, an accident.

And not as much to do with the so-called father of champagne, Dom Perignon, as we might think. In 1668 a 23 year-old Dom Perignon arrived in Champagne as the new treasurer of the Abbey of Hautvilliers, near Epernay. Part of his job was to improve the abbey’s wine. He worked on careful blending of different grape varieties—pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier—to give the abbey three types of wine: white, pink, and a light red wine. He did this well, but he couldn’t get rid of the annoying fizziness in some of the wines. Yes. In Champagne’s cold cellars some of the wines would stop fermentation too soon and, come the next spring, start fermenting again, making for a slight fizz in the solution. This was not only seen as a technical problem, but was also a logistics problem, as the weak 17th century bottles would often explode under the fizz’s pressure. Export markets—like England—didn’t like this. But they did come to like the fizz in the wine.

And it was an Englishman who invented the system of guaranteeing the bubble in the bottle. Christopher Merret, in 1662, documented the process of adding sugar to still wines to then make them “brisk and sparkling”. Importantly, English bottles didn’t explode, as they’d been fired with coal, and the resultant glass contained some strengthening iron. For collectors of miscellany, however, champagne’s mixed parentage is less interesting than the myriad champagne facts that can do so much to brand you the workplace wine bore/captain fizzy pants.

How many bubbles are there in bottles?

Inside every 750ml bottle of fizz is about five litres of carbon dioxide gas. This is enough to make—on average—47 million bubbles per bottle. This compressed gas also explains the pressure inside the bottle…

How much pressure’s inside?

About 80 psi, or nearly three times the pressure inside a car’s inflated tyre. This is why fizz needs to be in strong, heavy bottles—and why stoppers can dent plaster ceilings.

What is the best way for my staff to pour a glass of champagne for a customer?

Traditionally waiters have suggested that the champagne flute remain upstanding whilst the wine was poured into it vertically. New research in the US publication The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests that pouring champagne more like beer—on an angle—actually decreases the loss of carbon dioxide during the pouring process and keeps more bubble in the glass. Colder fizz keeps its bubble longer than warmer fizz, too.

What is the best way to kill the bubbles in a glass of champagne?

Besides pouring it into a detergent-marred glass, making the cork go “POP!” is not a good start, as you too quickly liberate too many of those 47 million bubbles. Take the stopper out carefully, letting the bottle merely ‘sigh’ when the stoppers gives way. The biggest killer of bubbles, however, is UV light. Standing outside on a sunny day with a flute of bubbles will see those bubbles flop in record time.

How do you guarantee the bubble in the glass?

Besides having properly rinsed and drained stemsware, the only real, bona fide ‘trick’ is to see a jeweller. Have him put a glasscutter’s nick inside the glass’s bowl, right at the bottom. This mark will make an abrasive, reactive point at which the CO2 can effervesce.

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