You’d have thought that the readers of the Daily Telegraph were as au fait as anyone with the appropriate stemware for Champagne. In an article on 27 December written by Camilla Turner, the author recommended flutes over the bad old coupe. That may sound old hat to fellow wine obsessives, but the article is interesting because it brought up some research, which has been knocking around for a while, by Professor Gérard Liger-Belair at the University of Reims, on how the bubbles in our favourite wine influence taste.
Liger-Belair wrote a great article in Tong Magazine (Issue No 4, back in Winter 2009), titled The Science Behind The Bubbles. It’s well worth digesting if you can get hold of it. I don’t propose to paraphrase what is a complex article, but the analysis does confirm what we all know – that in a flute the bubbles will rise more vigorously and for longer than in a glass which is both wider and shallower, like that 1960s/70s abomination, the coupe (with all its connotations as to origin etc).
Although many factors affect the mousse and bead of Champagne (including age, serving temperature, etc), there is no doubt that the flute can be the perfect vessel in which to admire the spiralling fliers, the strings of bubbles which flow from the very bottom to the top of the glass, where they break on the surface and give off their aromas. They do this by helping to bring chemical compounds in the wine to the taster’s nostrils, a process which has been verified by ultra high-resolution mass spectrometry.
Find out more about Professor Liger-Belair at phys.org – Champagne Physicist Reveals the Secrets of Bubbly.
So far, so good. Camilla Turner’s suggestion that if your Champagne is not tasting good (keeping aside the possibility that what you bought cost a tenner at a large supermarket), “it could be in the wrong glass”, holds true for recommending flutes over coupes. But if you read this Blog, you may be aware of a trend to use larger glasses for Champagne, especially when partaking in the practice, heaven forbid, of drinking Champagne throughout a meal (and let’s set aside the sacrilegious propensity of some Champagne geeks to carafe a bottle from time to time…okay, guilty).
So I thought I’d run through a few ideas I have on the subject. I can certainly claim extensive research, including comparisons using one Champagne in three glass types. But I don’t claim to be right. Two of the Champagne lovers whose opinions I value most retain a clear preference to use a flute, albeit one of Riedel’s finest. So what are the options?
Left to right: A Heal’s flute, John Lewis tulip, Riedel “Chianti” and Zalto Universal. I’m afraid I didn’t have a coupe to hand.
The flute itself has many advantages when serving Champagne as an aperitif to lots of people. Aside from the reasonable cost of providing a dozen or two flutes, they also accommodate a smaller quantity of wine (easily topped-up) without seeming mean, and the wine will remain fizzy for longer. It is also easier to avoid spilling the wine than if serving in a larger glass, like the Riedel, when gripping a flute in the same hand as a plate of canapés.
A good alternative to the flute is the tulip. This begins at its base with a deep and narrow space for the bubbles to get going before widening out more than the flute to create a small bowl. Then it tapers to the rim, to create the tulip flower shape. This allows for a steady train of bubbles like the flute, but with a much enhanced aroma spectrum, with more and different aromas coming to the fore, at least for me.
I mentioned Riedel. Their Vinum range glass, variously called “Riesling/Sangiovese”or “Chianti” has kind of become an industry standard for tasting Champagne in competition conditions. This is the glass used by Tom Stevenson and his team at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships, which is establishing itself as the pre-eminent arena for selecting the finest fizz every year. But this glass has also been in use for several years in some of Europe’s finest restaurants for serving Champagne with food. I can remember the revelation of being served Clos des Goisses in such a glass at The Ledbury in London many years ago. The glass, preferably when filled to between a quarter to a third full, clearly enhanced the winey nature of perhaps my favourite Champagne of all, or to sound slightly more technical, its vinosity. This is down to the larger bowl and wider rim, but go any larger and you risk the same problem as the coupe – the bubbles dissipate far too quickly. The larger Syrah or Burgundy glasses in the same range just don’t work as well.
Of course, vinosity isn’t something everyone wants from a Champagne. First of all, to many, Champagne remains just an aperitif, something to wet the palate and stimulate the tastebuds before the so-called serious business begins. Equally, when tasters remark on how a fine Champagne tastes like fine White Burgundy, critics will say that if they want to drink a Bâtard-Montrachet, they’ll drink the real thing.
That’s fair enough, but some of us see Champagne as a wine in its own right, just like any other. We want to explore all its nuances and possibilities. A larger glass enhances that journey, highlighting different aspects and facets of the wine. The bubbles subside more swiftly, and the aggressive carbon dioxide hit of the flute is replaced by something altogether more gentle. Without quite as many bubbles, the aromas of the bouquet and the multiple flavours on the palate are more pronounced. Personally, I find that not only does this enhance the possibility of enjoying Champagne with food, it actually transforms the experience.
So, having established a subjective rationale for trying Champagne in a larger glass with food, is there an alternative to the Riedel Chianti glass? Recently, I’ve been exploring the options provided by Zalto. Zalto’s Champagne glass has a bit of a marmite reputation among Champagne lovers, but I love it to bits. It has a long, fine, stem and a relatively small bowl. However, the half dozen I own are kept strictly for best. They are almost literally as light as a feather and I really fear breaking them. If it’s delicacy in Champagne you want to show off, this delicate glass is the place to pour it. But I also have a stash of Zalto Universals.
Zalto’s featherweight Champagne glass
After using a variety of Riedel and Schott glasses for different wine styles, the Zalto Universal has been almost revelatory in the way it lives up to its name. It seems to enhance quite a variety of wine styles, and it seems to work pretty well for Champagne with food as well. It has a larger bowl than the Riedel, although as you will see in the photograph near the top of this post, it tapers quite sharply to the lip, so that the circumference of the rim is not over large. The main difference between the Zalto Champagne glass and the Zalto Universal, obvious from the photos, is the deeply pointed base of the former. This helps to generate the train of bubbles I mentioned in relation to the tulip (there’s a great scientific explanation of how this works in the Tong Article).
It’s really just a question of experimenting and deciding which you prefer, but please do experiment. You may decide, like my two friends, that the flute is really the one for you. But you might find that sipping your Champagne with food brings a new dimension to your appreciation of this versatile wine, and that doing so from a wine glass enhances the experience.
What types of Champagne go with food? Perhaps look for bigger wines like Clos des Goisses, Selosse, or anything which tends towards being slightly oxidative in style. Wines from perpetual reserves (often called soleras by the journalists, though many of the producers really dislike this term) work well, and there’s no better example than Bérêche’s Reflet d’Antan cuvée. Along with Goisses, many other single vineyard wines work well as they are generally very expressive of place or terroir. For something less expensive than the Krug pair, try Taittinger’s Folies de la Marquetterie. My own personal taste is very much to use Chardonnay, or Blanc de Blancs, Champagnes with food, but that may just be my personal preference. Many of the grower wines from the Côte des Blancs fit the bill. Pierre Péters’ Les Chétillons would be high on my list. And whatever you do, don’t forget the pinks!
What should I eat with Champagne? Champagne is more versatile than you might think. I’m sure it’s not difficult to imagine it with some monkfish, or a lovely piece of turbot. But take a look at Michael Edwards‘ The Finest Wines of Champagne (Fine Wine Edns/Aurum, 2009). Chapter 9, Champagne Gastronomy, not only lists some of the author’s favourite tables in Champagne, there is also a host of food suggestions, dishes created by the region’s innovative chefs. Local cheeses and andouillettes, game (especially rabbit), pork, poultry, along with pretty much anything you’d cook in a Champagne sauce, in addition to many fish dishes, are all enhanced by Champagne. Especially with the edge slightly taken off the wine by serving in a larger glass. Even wild boar is suggested, and I’d be reaching for a nicely aged bottle from Selosse to go with that dish.
Ooh, turbot! Verveine Restaurant, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire. We drank Bérêche’s Reflet d’Antan with it.
Where can I buy my glasses? Not as silly as it sounds. Flutes are easy. Take your pick between a charity shop and a much finer model from someone like Riedel. In between you’ll find a good thin flute at department stores like Heal’s or John Lewis (for British readers). The key is thin glass and a thin rim, so the kind of glasses once given out by petrol stations in the UK won’t do. Neither, sadly, but in my honest opinion, will the heavy cut glass models you got as a wedding present. We have two large Dartington models which would hold about half a bottle each, and take two people to lift. They have yet to see the light of day.
Tulips are easy to find these days, and Riedel probably make the best in general production. John Lewis used to sell the best value version, lovely shape, thin. For some reason they stopped making them, but the four I have left are by far and away the most frequently used glasses for sharing a bottle of Champagne as an aperitif with a couple of friends at home.
Zalto glasses are less commonly seen in the UK than fellow Austrians, Riedel, although as their fame grows one sees them in more and more restaurants as the months go by. For all Zalto glasses, contact Daniel Primack of Winerackd (sic), working out of the Winemakers Club premises on Farringdon Street, London. Daniel has a nice little piece on his web site as to why the wine glass is important.
Before leaving you, I would just like to share this little gem, the Beer Anorak Beer Glass, designed by Daniel with “Wine Anorak” Jamie Goode. After all, we Champagne fanatics do drink beer as well. This glass had a very small production run, though there may be a few left. It’s so easy to be sceptical about how this odd looking glass can really enhance our enjoyment of beer. But it worked for me, and also for the occasional beer drinker in our house. I love it. It’s especially good for the aromatics.
NB – all photos of Champagne bottles are completely gratuitous. Other Champagnes are available should you prefer not to drink these. Indeed, there’s a whole world of fine sparkling wine out there to try, regions and countries far too numerous to list. It would be a real shame to restrict your exploration of these lovely wines to a glass sipped mid-conversation in a crowded, noisy, room whilst balancing a plate and a fork.