In the pre-Christmas dearth of news, when all serious journalists seem either to be at their Christmas parties or on their way home for the year, comes the widely reported story that champagne is better with bigger bubbles. This assertion is based on a study by Prof Gérard Liger-Belair that is due to be published in the European Physical Journal Special Topics next year.
I cannot get my cyber hands on that precise article, but I am guessing it was the research published earlier this year as a Nature Scientific Report, which states that “Finally, we exhibit conditions on bubble bursting that optimize aerosol evaporation: large bubbles and weakly viscous liquids. We identify a large bubble radius (~1.8?mm), broadly common to the whole range of champagne viscosity, that makes liquid transfer more efficient. […] This result is also remarkable as it undermines the popular belief that the smaller the bubbles, the better the champagne.” A popular belief, eh? I suppose so. But it is also one that Liger-Belair supported back in 2003: “Our ultimate goal is to create smaller bubbles in champagne wines.” According to that older article, the “reason smaller bubbles make better champagne is basically because there are more bubbles available to release the flavour and aroma”.
Absolutely no shame for a scientist to change his mind as new evidence comes to light – science progresses. But this shift of emphasis points to many more fundamental questions about what makes a good Champagne. It is quite possible that in the ideal case you want more bubbles, and bigger ones. But given that a bottle of Champagne can only hold so much carbon dioxide we cannot have both, so where should the balance lie? And do you want them all soon after pouring, as well you might if you a toasting with your glass of Champagne, or do you want them to be released slowly so you can enjoy it over a longer period? Presumably there are also limits to the benefits of aroma-releasing bubbles. However much you enjoy the Champagne aromas, you don’t want your drink splattered all over your nose in a violent eruption of bubbles.
And all the discussion so far seems to assume that aroma intensity, as detected by sniffing, is the most important aspect of Champagne quality. Putting aside the other important quality aspects of wine, such as balance, length and complexity, and sticking with the subject of bubbles, my understanding is that the texture of fine bubbles in the mouth is one of the hallmarks of a good sparkling wine. And however much aroma big bubbles might release into the glass, they supposedly give an inferior mouthfeel.
But enough of this geekery. There is a lot more to the enjoyment of Champagne, or any other sparkling wine, than can be achieved by obsessing about bubble size. And most of the enjoyment has nothing to do with what you learn on a wine course. It’s the occasion, and the people you drink it with. Have a good Christmas, and enjoy whatever is in your glass!