Why It Can’t Be Champagne Without The Bubbles

November 4th, 2019
Why It Can’t Be Champagne Without The Bubbles

You’ve seen it at the end of every modern sporting event: the triumphant winner with a bottle in their hand, struggling to get the cork out, and then BOOM! away it goes, closely followed by a jet of frothing liquid. They laugh, they shake the bottle violently, and the wine fires high into the air - or power-hoses sideways, if they’re mischievously redirecting the jet using their thumb over the end of the bottle. 

Everyone’s soaked, everyone’s laughing - and somewhere, someone is thinking Yeah, but what a waste of good champagne.

It’s always champagne they use for these things. It has to be. 

No other drink has acquired the same association with wild, hedonistic celebration (which dates back to the royal courts of France in the 18th century, but only gained worldwide popularity a hundred years later).

And no other drink behaves the same way when you uncork it and shake it. 

Yes, there are some carbonated wines that will froth and erupt when uncorked and shaken - but none like champagne. You can tell when it’s champagne. It’s dramatic.

The secret to its volatility is tied up with its definition as “champagne”. Within the EU and in many other parts of the world, the name is protected, and reserved only for wines that meet the following two criteria:

1) The wine has to be produced from grapes grown in the famously beautiful Champagne region of France, located on the northernmost limits of the latitudes where grapes can be successfully grown. 

(You can visit it next year as part of our Tastes Of Eastern France trip. It’s quite the place.) 

2) The wine has to be fermented twice.

If champagne was only fermented once, you’d quickly know about it. Champagne grapes aren’t terribly sweet, and that limited amount of sugar gets devoured by the fermentation yeast relatively quickly. This leads to a limited amount of alcohol (usually 8-9%) - and very little carbon dioxide, most of which is usually allowed to escape during that first fermenting process.

The way to create proper champagne is to kickstart the whole fermentation process anew. Cane sugar and yeast are added to the mix, and this time, the bottle is sealed so no gas can escape. This creates extra alcohol and carbon dioxide - and because the bottle is sealed, the latter raises the pressure and dissolves into the liquid. 

Bottles with champagne with dust and net ageing in modern winery factory storehouse

Bottles with champagne with dust and net ageing in modern winery factory storehouse

Now the yeast needs to be removed, and the traditional method uses the built-up pressure in a cunning way. The bottle is turned upside-down, so the yeast and sediment drift down into the bottle’s neck. Now the neck is dipped in an ice bath, freezing the yeasty matter into a solid plug - and as the bottle returns to normal temperature and the pressure rises, this plug is pushed out the bottle in much the same way an untethered cork is.

That pressure, by the way, is immense. Absurd, even. Spraying champagne everywhere may be fun (and a terrible waste of good champagne, that too) - but it’s also rather dangerous.

If the carbon dioxide dissolved into a bottle of champagne was allowed to expand as a gas at room temperature, it would fill another six bottles. The reason it doesn’t is that the bottle is sealed and therefore pressurised, keeping the gas dissolved into the liquid. If that pressure is allowed to equalise with the outside air - you guessed it, POP! 

Except with champagne, that word falls short of describing the incredible energy released. 

Behind each square inch of sealed champagne bottle is around 5kg - the weight of a gallon of paint, or five standard bags of sugar. Every single inch. “Explosive” doesn’t cover it.

If champagne bottle glass was normal thickness, that’d be enough to instantly cause an explosion - so champagne comes in specially thickened bottles. Even so, there are still accidents. There are many stories of champagnes stored in cellars in warmer times of the year that have blown themselves apart, triggering a chain-reaction of nearby champagne bottles that has cut a swathe through entire inventories.

The cork is a big clue to champagne’s inner power. Other wines don’t come with a cage wire that has to be twisted and pulled off (at least, other wines don’t have to - it’s sometimes used as a fashion accessory). Without that cage, the cork would slowly worm its way out, motivated by a pressure of around 5-6 atmospheres, where one atmosphere is equal to the standard sea-level atmospheric pressure that keeps us from popping like uncorked champagne. 

Champagne corks

Champagne corks

In imperial measurements, that’s around 70-90 pounds per square inch - the same pressure used in the tyres of double-decker buses. 

(Remember that, the next time you’re near such a bus. Bang your fist against one of the tires. Imagine all that energy, focused in one direction.) 

If a champagne cork flies out, it’s a good idea to be nowhere near it. At 8-10 degrees Celsius (the perfect temperature to serve a bottle of champers), the cork will explode outwards at around 30-40 miles per hour. At warmer temperatures, it could be moving in excess of 50 mph - far too fast to dodge if you’re just a few steps away. 

In the right (or rather the wrong) conditions, a champagne cork could be a deadly weapon - which is why traditional champagne manufacturers used armoured headgear to keep themselves safe, and why everyone should treat an unopened bottle of champagne with the utmost respect.

(The trick to safely opening a bottle of champagne is simple: you grip the cork tightly, and twist the bottle instead.)

Danger or no danger, champagne’s appeal is all about the bubbles. This extends to drinking it, as evidenced by its presentable nickname, “a glass of bubbly”. Those bubbles, though, are surprisingly hard to come by. Most of the carbon dioxide is released upon uncorking - and what’s left is trapped in the liquid, and at normal atmospheric pressure it’s hard to coax it out.

Tiny bubbles in a champagne glass

Tiny bubbles in a champagne glass

The trick is to use the right kind of glass - and to avoid cleaning it too vigorously.

As any veteran champagne drinker will tell you, only a flute will do, with a nice narrow neck to minimise carbon dioxide wastage from the surface - never a tumbler, and ideally skipping the standard wine glass. 

So you use a flute, and before drinking, you give it a wipe with a dry cloth. This coats the inside of the glass with tiny fibres - and it’s these that form the nucleation points for bubble formation, leading to those enchanting strings of bubbles that tumble up the sides of your freshly-poured champagne. 

(Alternately, find a well-made flute that as been artifully etched on the inside, to trigger bubble creation.)

And when you’re done, you clean that flute by hand, not in a dishwasher, which would render it so perfectly squeaky-clean that you’ll have a devil of a job making bubbles form the next time you use it.

So that’s how you drink champagne. And yes, there are folk who would rather spray it into the air - but since the Champagne region is producing around 300 million bottles a year, there’s always more where that came from. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Share this page

Leave a comment!

All fields marked with an asterisk* are required.

You may also be interested in...

Join our newsletter for the latest updates about tours and events.Join Now
+