Champagne has long been associated with French monks, celebrations, and luxury, but it arrived on its lofty perch quite by accident. Many attribute the appearance of wine effervescence to a particularly cold winter in the Marne Valley in the Champagne region of France back in the fifteenth century. Despite a shortened fermentation period, the wine was bottled and stored. As temperatures warmed the following spring, a second round of fermentation occurred inside the bottles and tanks, causing additional pockets of carbon dioxide gas to form.
As that vintage was poured, the excess gas found imperfections in the surface of the glassware, causing bubble nucleation. As the extraordinary gas pockets were encouraged by irregular surfaces on the glassware, bubbles formed. As the bubbles overcame the pressure of the atmosphere, they rose to the surface, popping and releasing their joy to the world. Fun, right?
This surprising development was initially seen as an undesirable fault, bursting bottles, popping prematurely, tickling noses, and in general, providing sideshow entertainment. Talk about wine education! As fashion turned the tide, a preference for bubbles became haute viticulture and Champagne claimed its now famous niche. Working to encourage the once shunned effervescence, the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon exclaimed upon discovery of bubble improvement, “Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars.”
We love them today, but just what do these lovely bubbles do for wine, and how do they contribute to our tasting and enjoyment of Champagne?
The Methode Champenoise Process: Bubbles-in-Waiting
Champagne is made with three basic grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. A yeast known as Saccaromyces cerevisiae sets the fermentation of the fruit in motion, turning the sugar of glucose into an alcohol called ethanol, with carbon dioxide as a by-product, supersaturating the wine with CO2. Dissolved in the wine, these CO2 gas pockets are simply bubbles-in-waiting, not actually forming until the cork is popped.
As Champagne is opened, bubbles form and pop, both on the surface of the glass, and on the surface of the wine. Happy streams of bubbles send tiny jets of Champagne to the nose, dispersing the wine’s aromas. As the effervescent sip flows into the mouth, additional bursts provide flavors on the tongue with each pop, numbering upwards of hundreds of pops per second.
The Bubbles Do the Work
Bubbles eliminate the need to swirl and aerate wine in the glass. They lift both nose and palate in their journey. Each delicate sphere delivers the signature scents of vanilla, florals, herbs, and minerality on the nose, and unique flavor profiles of each vintage to the taste buds, announcing their delightful arrival with miniature explosions. Distribution of aromas and flavors aside, the physical element added by the sensation of the pops puts the punctuation on the experience.
A fine mousse of bubbles is often deemed an indication of a good Champagne. What may be more telling is the date on the bottle. The carbon dioxide gas that causes the bubbles to form dissipates over time, resulting in smaller bubbles from more mature bottles. Smaller bubbles distributing a refined vintage often equals an exceptional sip. Mature wines generally become tastier versions of their youthful selves, accounting for the elevation in status.
Larger format bottles tend to retain more CO2 than their smaller counterparts, resulting in a more dramatic show of bubbles, accompanied by a fine mousse distributing a smooth, rich flavor profile. Glassware that is ultra clean and super smooth, or that has surfaces contaminated with any type of fat, oil, or grease? Good luck nurturing a bubble or two there, as these are all mousse destroyers, resulting in reduced delivery of aroma, flavor, and pop.
Finding a Favorite
Scientific research employing technical concepts can explain in detail just how the bubbles in Champagne are born, but only the human element can truly appreciate the end result. It all comes down to personal preference: drink what you like.
A combination of happy accidents and focused research, followed by centuries of production and house secrets, have produced a wide variety of Champagnes and sparkling wines appealing to a range of palates and preferences. Finding the brand that tickles your individual fancy can be one of the most pleasurable tasks you will ever experience, as you toast to the stars in celebration of the physics, chemistry, and bubbles of your perfect sip. Cheers!