Bubbles Galore in Champagne and Sparkling Wine

4 Jun

I’ve always loved bubbles. When I was young, like many other kids, I enjoyed playing with them in the bathtub, in my soda glass or in the backyard. Now that I’m older, I enjoy them in seltzer, Champagne and other sparkling wines. I even have an entertaining bubble screen saver on my computer. (I’d like to be able to say I never met a bubble I didn’t like, but the financial kind aren’t much fun.)

These days my favorite bubbles are the plentiful carbon-dioxide ones in all kinds of sparkling wines. I find their effervescence invigorating, refreshing and uplifting. They always improve my mood. But they’re not there just to cheer. Their presence plays an integral role in the wines: They affect mouth feel (tingly), look (vivacious) and taste (hopefully wonderful). They even affect the aroma, because they guide it toward the nose.

How many bubbles does it take to accomplish all this? Quite a few. Until recently, I thought there were 49 million in every bottle, as the Champagne Wines Information Bureau reported some time ago, citing the research of scientist Bill Lembeck.

Lembeck, simply put, determined how much carbon dioxide is in a standard 750-ml bottle of Champagne and divided it by the volume of an average bubble. With the help of a device called an optical comparator, he figured that out to be 4.2 millionths of a cubic inch.

But according to new research reported in the New York Times (“TAKE A NUMBER: One Million,” May 6), French physics professor Gérard Liger-Belair, author of Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, has determined that a 3.4 oz. glass of Champagne is blessed with some 1 million bubbles before it becomes flat in roughly 4 hours. (There are about 7.5 glasses this size in a 750-ml bottle, which translates to 7.5 million bubbles per bottle.)

There are, however, other estimates. Until recently Liger-Belair himself claimed that there were 15 million bubbles per glass. He later admitted that the formula he used to reach this conclusion was too simple. To arrive at his new estimate, he took additional factors into account (see below). The California Wine Institute’s website states that there are approximately 44 million bubbles in a bottle of sparkling wine/champagne. In The Wine Bible (2001), Karen MacNeil wrote that Champagne producer Bollinger has claimed there are some 56 million bubbles in a bottle of Champagne. According to Champagne expert Tom Stevenson’s Champagne &  Sparkling Wine Guide 2003, Moët & Chandon used a camera-based, computer-linked “artificial vision system” to record the release of bubbles and concluded that there are on average 250 million bubbles in a bottle of sparkling wine.

The calculation is complex, which explains the widely varying results. Many factors affect the number of bubbles–the concentration of the gas, the type of glass, the temperature of the wine and the room, the angle of the pour and the size of the bubbles among them. All must be taken into account.

So it seems this is another one of those mysteries that won’t soon be solved, unless, as my husband jokingly says, someone sits down and counts every bubble. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be content with knowing there are more than enough bubbles in these wines to make me very happy, pour myself another glass and leave it at that.

RECOMMENDED CHAMPAGNES AND SPARKLING WINES

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve Champagne NV (SRP $36*): Nicolas Feuillatte is currently the fourth best-selling Champagne brand in the U.S. Sales of it rose 12% here last year, considerably more than any of the other Top 5 brands.

This Brut Réserve comprises 20% Chardonnay (contributes elegance and finesse), 40% Pinot Noir (adds roundness and structure) and 40% Pinot Meunier (supplies fruit character). It has aromas and flavors of apple, pear, apricot and peach. It’s delicate, fresh, clean, lively, complex and well balanced–and an excellent value. It’s a good choice as an apertif and complements chicken, salmon, shellfish, sushi, cheese, fruit and dessert.

Barons de Rothschild Brut Rosé Champagne NV (SRP $150): The Barons de Rothschild have been making Bordeaux since the 1850s. Three arms of the family–from Château Lafite, Château Mouton and Château Clarke–recently teamed up to produce Champagne, which first arrived in the U.S. in 2011.

This elegant Champagne, 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir, is fresh, vivacious, complex and well balanced, with aromas and flavors of raspberry, strawberry and citrus. Exuberant mousse –the bubbles are seemingly endless, even days after the bottle was first opened. Serve as an aperitif or with sushi, sashimi, tuna tartare, berry soup or fresh strawberries.

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé NV (SRP $22): Crémants d’Alsace are the leading sparkling wine, after Champagne, on the French domestic market. The word crémant used to signify the least fizzy Champagnes. Today it indicates some of the best French sparkling wines made by the méthode traditionnelle (formerly called the méthode champenoise) from regions other than Champagne.

Albrecht’s Rosé Crémant is 100% Pinot Noir. It has aromas and flavors of strawberry and cherry, along with crisp acidity, a creamy texture and a long finish. Serve as an aperitif or with charcuterie and mild cheeses.

Veuve Ambal Cuvée Marie Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne Brut NV (SRP $25): Burgundy’s sparkling wines, called Crémants de Bourgogne, are also made using the méthode traditionelle. This Veuve Ambal uses the main Champagne grapes–Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–in equal proportions. It features floral and fruity aromas and flavors, especially of pink grapefruit, and toasty notes. It’s well balanced and full flavored. Serve as an aperitif.

Ferrari Brut Trento NV:  (SRP $25): Giulio Ferrari was the first viticulturist to bring Chardonnay vines to Italy in the early 1900s. In the years since, Ferrari has become one of Italy’s best sparkling wine producers. Its wines are made using the metodo classico, aka méthode traditionelle.

This elegant Brut, 100% Chardonnay, has aromas and flavors of apples, apricot, lemon and wild flowers. It’s fresh, clean and balanced. Serve as an aperitif or with seafood and other light dishes.

Valdo Brut Prosecco NV (SRP $14): 100% Glera. (Glera grapes used to be called Prosecco. Now only the wines themselves are.) According to IRI Infoscan, Valdo is the No. 1 Prosecco in Italy. This Valdo Brut is fruity, fresh, floral and versatile, with aromas and flavors of peach, apricot and pear. It, like other Proseccos, is made using the Charmat method, in which the secondary bubble-producing fermentation takes place in large stainless-steel tanks, not in bottles. This technique is especially appropriate for Prosecco because it preserves the wine’s fresh, fruity character. Serve as an aperitif or with appetizers, seafood and other light dishes.

Anna de Codorníu Brut Cava (SRP $15): The Codorníu winery, founded in 1551, is one of the largest producers of Cava, Spain’s popular sparkling wine. In 1659 the heiress of Codorníu, Anna, married winemaker Miquel Raventós, bringing together two important winegrowing families. In 1872 Cava pioneer Josep Raventós produced the first bottles of Spanish sparkling wine made by the méthode traditionelle. Anna de Codorníu, a tribute to the last descendant to carry the Codorníu surname, was launched in 1984. It was the first Cava to include Chardonnay.

This Cava, 70% Chardonnay and 30% Parellada, has aromas and flavors of tropical fruit, pineapple, citrus, peach, apple and lime. It’s well balanced, crisp and refreshing. Serve as an aperitif or with shellfish, white fish, sushi and sashimi.

Korbel Brut California Champagne NV (SRP $13): Korbel calls its sparkling wines Champagne, but since they’re not made in Champagne, many would not. They are, however, made using the same process as Champagne, the méthode traditionelle. And, in any event, many of Korbel’s bubblies, year after year, offer excellent value for very good sparkling wine.

This Brut is a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard and Pinot Noir. It  has aromas and flavors of citrus, baked apple and raspberry and is crisp and refreshing. Pair it with oysters, smoked salmon, fried and salty foods, shellfish, sushi, egg dishes and roast poultry.

Korbel Brut Rosé California  Champagne NV (SRP $13): A blend of Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay, Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc. Its aromas and flavors are mainly strawberry and black cherry. Flavorful, bright and aromatic. A versatile wine, it complements grilled and barbecued foods, tomato sauces, pizza, turkey, ham and creamy vegetable side dishes.

*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.

Note: I received samples of these wines.

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2 Responses to “Bubbles Galore in Champagne and Sparkling Wine”

  1. Debra Hartmann June 5, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    What fun! Was the de Rothschild ten times better than the cava? Do you see a correlation between price and quality in general? Cheers! Debra

    • Sharon Kapnick June 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

      Excellent question. I think that, like anything else, sometimes there are very well-priced wines and sometimes there are overpriced wines. That said, it’s not fair to compare the Rothschild Champagne to a cava. I hate to use this cliché, but that’s like comparing apples and oranges.

      Now if you compare the two Champagnes, you’d have to decide if you’d rather have three or four bottles of the Nicolas Feuillatte or one bottle of the Rothschild. I know which I’d choose! I guess it depends on how much money you have to spare for such luxuries and whether you’re a spender or a saver.

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