My wine-loving uncle always told me that big Champagne bubbles were a bad sign. He’d say, “You might as well drink a bottle of cheap club soda.” However, researchers are now finding that when it comes to buying the best Champagne, bigger bubbles could be an important factor to consider. Physicist Gerard Liger-Belair recently discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, bigger bubbles allow more aromatics to be released from the wine, which improves the flavor. Liger-Belair says, “Small bubbles were the worst in terms of aroma release.” Yet Champagne quality is more than just bubble size. Before you measure the fizz in your next glass, consider all of the elements at play in the bottle.
A Bubbly Controversy
Gerard Liger-Belair hasn’t always been on the big bubble bandwagon. In 2003, he published a study that found that small, consistent bubbles produced a better-tasting wine than glasses with fewer, larger bubbles. Originally, Liger-Belair and fellow researchers from Champagne assumed that small bubbles would be better because winemakers could pack more of them into the glass–the more bubbles the Champagne had, the faster it would release its aromatics. His newest study found a polar opposite result: that small bubbles don’t perform as well as their larger peers after all. Using high-speed photographs, Liger-Belair’s team discovered that Champagne bubbles erupt like a flower petal at the surface of the glass, throwing tiny droplets of wine and gas into the air. Larger bubbles did this better than small bubbles.
When you look closely at these two very different studies, they actually support the same finding at their core: the release of aromatics matters when it comes to buying the best Champagne. The key to a wine’s success is a combination of consistent fizz and larger bubble size. In the first study, wines with large bubbles didn’t perform well if those bubbles dissipated too quickly or were too few in number. You’ll often find this quality in cheap sparkling wine that has had carbon dioxide artificially added to the bottle after the fact, rather than going through an expensive and time-consuming second fermentation (which naturally produces CO2 as yeast ferments in the bottle). Additionally, wines that have small, consistent bubbles might not produce as much aroma as wines with large, consistent bubbles. In other words, both consistency and size work together to make a flavorful wine.
A Guide to Buying the Best Champagne
Knowing this, your first step for buying the tastiest Champagne and sparkling wine is to stick with producers who use second fermentation. This process will give you long-lasting, numerous bubbles. To test whether a young Champagne is up to snuff, look at the bubble size and consistency. If you see bubbles covering nearly every centimeter of the glass, and the bubbles appear relatively large in size, the wine will likely be highly aromatic. Next, slowly drink a glass of it over the course of 20 to 30 minutes. Did the bubbles remain fresh on the palate until the last sip? If not, the wine might not be an ideal wine to lay down for your collection. Generally, you’ll want to collect wines that continue to bubble for hours in their youth, since this liveliness will naturally die down as the wine ages.
Buying vintage Champagne requires a different strategy because older bottles start to lose their carbonation naturally over time. You likely won’t see a large number of bubbles, but the bubbles you do see should still remain lively as the wine sits in the glass. In this case, the larger those remaining bubbles are, the more aromatic the wine will be, even if it’s been sitting in a cellar for 50 years. Smaller, more fizz-like bubbles won’t give you as much aromatic intensity 50 years from now. I recommend investing in wines with more delicate bubbles, like those from Moet & Chandon, if you intend to drink them in their youth (within 15 years), since this is when the bubbles will be at their aromatic peak. Critic Antonio Galloni also enjoys drinking these types of wines young. A more full-bodied style like Bollinger has a longer lasting aroma because the bubbles tend to be more intense. Both of these wines are well worth cellaring, but the one you choose depends on whether you prefer a creamier vintage, or one that’s a bit more aromatic.
How to Get More Bubbles
You can dramatically improve the bubbles in any bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine when you serve it in the correct glass, pour the wine properly, and keep it well-chilled. Gerard Liger-Belair found that if your Champagne doesn’t have a high number of bubbles, serving it in a flute will help concentrate the surface area of the bubble bursts, which will improve the aromatics. However, if your wine already has a large number of bubbles, it’s safe to serve it in a standard white wine glass in order to give it more room to breathe. He also discovered that tilting the glass as you pour your wine into it will prevent the bubbles from popping too early–you don’t want foam to form at the top of the glass. Finally, you should always serve your Champagne at about 45 degrees, which helps preserve the bubbles. CO2 tends to escape more quickly from warmer wine. Following these serving tips, you can make the most out of any wine’s bubbles, small or large.
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