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Cheap Bubbly Or Expensive Sparkling Wine? Look To The Bubbles For Clues

Dec 31, 2012
Originally published on January 2, 2013 10:03 am

There's nothing like the distinctive "pop" of the uncorking of a bottle of bubbly to create a sense of celebration. Whether it's Dom Perignon or a $10 sparkling wine, bubbles add pizazz.

Sparkling-wine lovers sometimes point to the glittering streams of tiny bubbles as an important attribute. Why? Well, tiny bubbles are a sign of age, explains French chemist Gerard Liger-Belair, author of Uncorked: The Science of Champagne.

"Old champagnes always show tiny bubbles, mainly because they have aged several years and lost a significant amount of dissolved CO2, the gas that produces the bubbles," Liger-Belair told us in an email.

And what else can the bubbles tell you? Well, if the streams of bubbles remain down to the last sip, this can be a clue as to how it was produced.

If you listen to my story, you'll hear a tour with Fred Frank, third-generation winemaker at Chateau Frank, part of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Frank uses the traditional Champagne method to produce his sparkling wines. It's a labor- and time-intensive process whereby each bottle goes through a second fermentation in the bottle. "The benefit of this method is higher-quality sparkling wine," Frank says.

And one way that the sparkling wine produced in this method can distinguish itself in the flute is that the train of bubbles keeps streaming and streaming, down to the last sip.

So what's the science behind this? Liger-Belair said that by using the Champagne method, "the [bubble-producing] CO2 produced by yeast cannot escape into the atmosphere, and is kept mainly dissolved into [the] Champagne."

This is a sharp contrast to some cheap sparkling wines, where the CO2 is sometimes injected into the wine, similar to the process used to create carbonated soft drinks. "This produces big bubbles that dissipate quickly in the glass," he says.

In full disclosure, we compared the bubble streams of a bottle of 2005 Chateau Frank and a midpriced bottle of California bubbly. While the Chateau Frank bubbles were noticeably tinier, both produced multiple streams of bubbles that lasted a long while.

But here's one tip if you want to preserve the effervescence in every flute of bubbly: Pay attention to how you pour.

The traditional way is to pour Champagne straight down into the flute. But Liger-Belair says you may be losing thousands of bubbles this way.

In a study published in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, Liger-Belair and some colleagues found that pouring champagne down the side of a tilted glass, similar to the way beer is poured, preserved about 25 percent more carbon dioxide.

This technique has not taken off in France, where Liger-Belair says no one wants to liken Champagne to beer. But scientifically, it's clear. If you want more bubbles — to tickle the tongue and transfer those wonderful aromas to your nose — try the tilted pour.

And while we're on the subject of French traditions, I should point out that if you listen to my story you'll hear about the kerfuffle over the use of the term Champagne.

The French are keen to point out that the term Champagne should only be used on the bottles of sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France. Champagne producers have launched a campaign in the U.S. to raise awareness of this issue.

In deference to this, Frank, a few years back, took the word Champagne off his label. Instead he references the Champagne method. And he says he's proud to promote his bottles of bubbly as sparkling wine from the Finger Lakes.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. I know it's breakfast time, but it is New Year's Eve, and we're ready here to bring out the champagne. You might be waiting a little longer before popping the cork. Maybe you're still thinking about whether you want to toast with the cheap stuff - nothing wrong with that - or with something finer. NPR's Allison Aubrey joined us to explain the difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)

GREENE: Oh, that's a nice sound.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Oh, yeah. The drama of the pop, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAMPAGNE FIZZ)

GREENE: I mean, I love that sound. That alone makes me feel like we're celebrating something.

AUBREY: That's right.

GREENE: But talk to me about what's inside the bottle. I'm always curious when I'm at a party or something like that.

AUBREY: Well, you know, a big part of the splash is the effervescence, the bubbles that kind of tickle your nose and sting your throat. And as those little bubbles surface to the top, they're actually doing something really important.

GREENE: So this is some kind of hint of whether we're drinking the good stuff or something cheap. It's all about the bubbles.

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, the bubbles can be a really good clue. This is actually a nice bottle of the sparkling, here. And what I want you to do is to look into the glass, look into the flute, if you will. And you can see the steady stream of bubbles rising to the top, right?

GREENE: Yeah. Yeah.

AUBREY: Well, this is good. The bubbles are actually transferring all of the aroma from the glass up to your nose, sort of heightening the sensory experience of it all. Now, with the good stuff, with fine bubbly, these bubbles will last and last down to your very last sip. But in sharp contrast, if it's cheap bubbly, then the bubbles tend to stream out of the glass very quickly. One minute, they're here. The next minute, they're gone.

GREENE: OK. Well, you were very nice to have brought a good bottle here. I'm seeing bubbles still streaming. Why does that mean that this is a, you know, a fine champagne?

AUBREY: Well, it has to do with the technique, how the bubbly's made. I really wanted to understand this, so I visited a vineyard in New York State, in the Finger Lakes region. It's called Chateau Frank, part of Konstantin Frank. And I was given a tour there by the third-generation winemaker Fred Frank.

FRED FRANK: What we're looking at right here are thousands and thousands of bottles of sparkling wine that had been aging on the yeast. So the French called this en tirage.

AUBREY: He held one bottle up. It was a 2006 vintage. He held it up to the light.

I see little bits floating around in there. What exactly are those?

FRANK: Right. Those are the yeast. Those little bits of the cloudiness are the yeast cells.

AUBREY: And they actually help explain how Frank coaxes so many of these wonderful tiny bubbles out of those sparkling wines. You see, inside each of these bottles, Frank is deliberately capturing all of the bubble-producing carbon dioxide that's made naturally in the bottle during fermentation.

FRANK: We bottle these wines with sugar and yeast added and put this crown cap on. So each bottle becomes its own fermentation vessel.

AUBREY: Now, this is completely different from cheap bubblies. They're fermented in huge vats really quickly. And sometimes the carbon dioxide gas is just injected in, like a carbonated soft drink or filter water. And so by comparison, the traditional champagne method that Frank uses is time-consuming and labor-intensive. But he says it's worth it.

FRANK: The benefit of this method is higher quality sparkling wine.

AUBREY: Now, there's lots of romance with champagne, right? The bubbles have been likened to pearls, and it's been said drinking champagne is like drinking the stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TINY BUBBLES")

DON HO: (Singing) Tiny bubbles...

AUBREY: Does this sound familiar?

GREENE: Love it.

AUBREY: But I have to tell you, David, it is not all celebration. There's a bit of an international dispute brewing here over champagne.

GREENE: Allison, you bring champagne, you bring music. This is wonderful. But international dispute? What's going on?

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Well, you see on the label of the Chateau Frank bubbly I've brought here, which I mentioned was produced in New York State, what do you see that it says here on the bottom left-hand side of the label?

GREENE: All right. I'll take a look. Bottom left-hand side. It says methode champenoise - at least that's my French accent. Or maybe it's not a good one.

AUBREY: Methode champenoise. It actually means champagne method, right? It's made in the champagne method. And this kind of tells consumers in the know, hey, this bottle of bubbly is worth a little higher price because of the technique used to produce it. But here's the issue: the French do not want to share this term, champagne.

GREENE: It's theirs. They want ownership of it.

AUBREY: It's theirs. And I was trying to understand this position, so I reached out to French champagne maker Bruno Paillard. Now, the Champagne region is about a 90-minute drive from Paris. And Paillard says what makes the wine from here so unique is not just the grapes or the technique. It's also the climate and the soil, what the French called terroir.

BRUNO PAILLARD: Champagne is the wine coming from the Champagne region, and you cannot separate that.

AUBREY: Paillard says to be champagne, it must be produced in this very specific area, and everything about the process is governed by strict rules.

PAILLARD: We say that champagne is our identity, and it should not be misused. It should not be, in a way, stolen.

AUBREY: The French are very serious. They've hired a politically connected guy here in Washington - his name is Sam Heitner - to really press this issue. I met up with Sam at a wine store here in town, and he told me right now, almost half of all the sparkling wine sold in the U.S. is labeled as champagne, even though it doesn't come from France.

SAM HEITNER: I don't know where this wine came from, from this label. It says California sparkling champagne, with champagne and brut cuvee much larger than California. And so it takes a second look at the label to make sure you know exactly what you're purchasing.

AUBREY: So you think it's pretty confusing.

HEITNER: I think that they are misleading the U.S. consumer.

AUBREY: And Heitner says now there are negotiations between the E.U. and the U.S. to resolve this issue through legal channels.

GREENE: OK, Allison. So it sounds like the really important lesson here is if you care about where your bubbly is coming from, read the label and read it closely. I mean, just the word champagne doesn't mean anything. You've got to read a lot.

AUBREY: That's absolutely right. Read the label. But you know what? There's one more thing I've discovered on this hardship of a reporting assignment.

GREENE: It very, yeah, difficult - difficult work.

AUBREY: It's about how best to pour champagne. And since we're only hours away from the big toast of the year, right?

GREENE: Yeah. You're going to - whoa, hello.

AUBREY: There it comes.

UNDENTIFIED GROUP: Nine, eight, seven...

GREENE: I love a countdown. You're getting us in the mood already.

GROUP: Five, four, three, two...

AUBREY: All right. I thought maybe you could pour us a glass, David.

GREENE: You going to talk me through it?

AUBREY: I'm going to talk you through it. Well, how do you normally pour champagne?

GREENE: I mean, I kind of learned you tip the glass and pour it in so you don't get so many bubbles, and so the pour is gentle. But you tell me. I'm ready for a lesson.

AUBREY: You know what? I'm actually pretty shocked, here, because the traditional way is to pour sort of vertically, straight up and down. It's the way the French do it. That's the way you see it poured in a French restaurant. But a French chemist has discovered that if you do it just the way you said - sort of like beer - tilt the glass, pour it down the side...

GREENE: Yup. Like, 45 degrees here.

AUBREY: ...that's right, or maybe 30 - you actually preserve about 25 percent more of those bubbles. And remember we talked about that's how you get all that lovely effervescence up to the nose, right?

GREENE: Right, right, right. That's exactly why I've always done it, because I wanted to preserve the - all of that, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: So, there you have it. Looks like you've been pouring champagne the right way for a long time. But the French would disagree. The French chemist tells me that this finding is very unpopular in France.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, at the risk of annoying the French, I am going diagonal here. Can I pour you a glass?

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Absolutely.

GREENE: All right. There we go. Pour, pour, handing it over to you.

AUBREY: All righty.

GREENE: Whoops. The microphone's here, I guess.

AUBREY: All right.

GREENE: Do we do a toast?

AUBREY: Absolutely.

GREENE: Cheers.

AUBREY: Here we go.

GREENE: Happy New Year.

AUBREY: Happy New Year, a few hours early.

GREENE: You got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

AUBREY: All right.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

AUBREY: Thank you so much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.