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The Science of Bubbles

Ditch those elegant flutes and breast-inspired coupes for the best vessel to sup champagne from – and no, it’s not the bottle.

Bubbles are crucial to the enjoyment of champagne, in fact between 40 – 50% of the flavour we experience when drinking champagne comes from them. If you’ve ever left a glass for too long and tasted it flat then you’ll understand that without persistent effervescence all the important elements of champagne – its flavours, aromas and, of course, that gentle fizz across the tongue – are completely destroyed.

As much as we always knew the important of bubbles, the exact science behind them has only just been realised in the past few years. And that’s all thanks to Gérard Liger-Belair, a scientist who’s been working on effervescence in Reims, Champagne, for the past 15 years.

I first interviewed him three years ago, when he told me that we should all be drinking champagne out of a wine glass – and that was all down to the way the bubbles reacted in the flute and a coupette (the shallow basin glasses in which cocktails are typically served).

At the time Gérard spoke about the way bubbles rise to the top of champagne flutes, or coupettes, inducing flow patterns in the liquid, effectively stirring it and changing the aroma and flavour of the wine. In a flute this stirring action is much more forceful than any other glassware while the narrow opening concentrates the CO2 coming from the bubbles and hurts our noses if we dive too deeply in to take a big sniff of the champagne.

So the flute is not a great design for champagne, but then neither is the coupette which causes the wine to go flat quicker and also makes nosing or tasting the fizz near impossible thanks to its huge opening which gives off all the aromas to the room but not our noses.

No, Gérard was adamant that we should all have a new glass to enjoy champagne from. Something elegant like a flute but one which would allow us all the enjoy the fizz better. At the time it sounded like a great idea but I had no idea where to buy one.

Today I now have one of these in my cupboard, a wine-like shaped glass designed for champagne by Riedel. And if you think it’s all nonsense, I can tell you otherwise, for out of this glass fizz never tasted better.

Riedel is a brand that has been family owded for the last 260 years has been creating unique, grape varietal glassware for the past 40 years. Back in 1973 when the range was first realised it was a real break from design.

“When we launched back in the 70s the flute was well established for drinking champagne from. We were always aware that the narrow glass was not the best in terms of appreciating champagne. Initially we had several different shapes that were evocative of flute but getting wider and broader to allow aromas,” says Steve McGraw, the Managing Director for Riedel in the UK. “Around three years ago we produced a champagne glass more similar to a wine glass – and recommend that is the way to serve good champagne. And it’s not just us, look at the way champagne promote wines when they launch. Very few houses are using a flute now, rather we’ve moved to using something evocative of the flute but with a wider bowl – one that the consumer initially thinks is a white wine glass.”

One of the main problems with the flute, according to Steve, is that champagne needs that larger bowl to allow aromas to develop, and there’s simply not enough air space. It’s also those pesky bubbles again becoming concentrated and giving us all a blast of acidity and froth rather than a gentle fizz

“Having a narrower opening after a wider bowl influences where the champagne hits our palates – acidity balanced into fruit and those biscuit, brioche notes,” explains Steve, talking about the Riedel shape which has starts wider and slowly tapers in.

For the company the flute still sells, but when it comes to restaurants, winemakers and people who have had a chance to try the glassware, the new style is catching on.

“We do a lot of work with English sparkling wines and there’s a number who use that shape now, particular when launching new vintages because they know it shows their wines in a better way. The same is true in any sparkling wine which has some quality and detail to it – a better shape will enhance the flavour.”

Three years on, and we’ve made the change, after all champagne isn’t cheap and who wants to pay for delicious wine when they can’t taste it to full effect? Not us.