A Champagne in Any Other Glass...

by Chuck Hayward

A Champagne in Any Other Glass...

Post by Chuck Hayward | December 7th, 2011

Champagne has long been on the receiving end of rules—ones about how it is made, how it is labeled, and how it should be drunk. Over the years, we have come to accept those regulations and perhaps even find it comforting that they don't fluctuate often. But today, champagne is witnessing revisions to concepts that were before considered sacrosanct, and they have nothing to do with grapes or labels. The change has to do with glass vessels.

Chuck pondering glassware, champagne in hand

If there is one rule that has been generally accepted across the board, it is that sparkling wine is best served in a flute, preferably scored at the base to promote effervescence then rinsed with water and dried with a towel. Along that same line of thinking is that the coupe, also referred to as the Marie Antoinette glass, fails to preserve bubbles since the broader surface allows what is in the glass to go flat more quickly. Recently, though, many in the industry are rethinking this.

Most significantly, a slow movement is afoot to replace the traditional flute with a classic wine glass. A number of winemakers and writers claim that in order to maximize the wine's flavors and enhance aromas, pouring champagne in a burgundy styled glass is preferable to a flute. At the least, they claim, a wider and broader shape to the bowl of the flute is the minimum recommendation.

Another trend that has popped up is for sparkling wines to be decanted. I witnessed this firsthand at a recent tasting hosted by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) where the representatives for Charles Heidsieck poured their bubbly out of Riedel's Amadeo decanters. Once again, the goal is to reveal the flavors that would otherwise appear much more slowly, if at all, when only poured from a bottle.

These changes to the accepted wisdom about pouring and drinking bubbly do not come without controversy. Much has been written about changes in dosage levels and the various crus that can affect the way a wine tastes in a very minute way, but using decanters and new glassware is such a major change that even champagne makers are in conflict.

At a tasting of the champagnes of Terry Thiese, who has defined the artisanal fizz movement in the US, I conducted an informal survey of the producers in attendance. While some saw a wider bowl more helpful in letting their wines reveal the hidden flavors and aromas, a surprising number drew the line at using decanters. Preserving their wines’ effervescence was very important to them.

Decanters ready for bubbly?

Both of these trends turn our classic understanding of champagne on its head. No doubt, using decanters or burgundy glasses would dissipate the bubbles and effervescence that winemakers work so hard to create (and what consumers have been taught to appreciate). Utilizing regular glassware or decanters is treating sparkling wine more as a still wine. While some drinkers see the flatness as a fault, many connoisseurs still appreciate that older champagnes lose their bubbles over time. The theories that form the logic behind this "glassware revolution" are understandable. However, the question then becomes whether bubbles are still important to champagne. That is a question each consumer and, ultimately the sparkling wine industry, must decide.