Champagne’s Glass Warfare

by Chuck Hayward

JJ Buckley’s latest Champagne Report is about to be released, with new articles on the region’s indigenous varieties and the movement towards drier Champagnes along with new winery profiles and updated reviews. To get you in the mood, today’s post looks at the recent debate surrounding the optimal glasses and decanters for bubbly.

Champagne has long been on the receiving end of rules—regarding how it is made, how it is labeled, and how it should be enjoyed. Over the years, we have come to accept these unwritten codes and perhaps even find them comforting, as they didn’t often fluctuate. But today, Champagne is witnessing revisions to concepts that were once considered sacrosanct, and they have nothing to do with grapes or labels. The changes have to do with glass in which our bubbly is served.

If there is one rule that has been generally accepted across the board, it is that sparkling wine is best served in a flute. For maximum ‘correctness’, the flute was preferably scored at the base to promote bubbles, then rinsed with water and dried with a towel once the night is done. The coupe (also known as the Marie Antoinette glass) was long ago decried as an inferior vessel because its broader surface allowed the wine to promptly lose its effervescence. Now, there are some in the industry who promote an alternative to both the coupe and the flute.

You Bet Your Glass…

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, Champagne should be served in a Burgundy styled glass rather than a flute. At the very least, they claim, a wider and broader shape to the bowl of the flute is a minimum requirement. But the desire to reclaim more flavor comes at the expense of Champagne’s bubbles. Like the coupe, which has been generally dismissed as little more than a historic relic for shows like Mad Men, sparkling wine will also lose its bubbles, becoming flat almost as quickly in a classic wine glass.

Another new trend can be seen in the increasingly commonplace practice of decanting sparkling wine. 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 poured from a bottle. However, sloshing the wine about in a decanter will surely cause any bubbles to dissipate more rapidly.

Troubles with the Bubbles

These changes to the accepted wisdom regarding pouring and drinking bubbly do not come without controversy. Some of the more recent writing about Champagne has focused on the subtle changes in taste profiles that result from different dosage levels or the blending of certain vineyard lots. These winemaking decisions can affect a wine’s flavor profile in very minute ways, but using decanters and rethinking the preferred style of glassware is such a major change that even Champagne’s winemakers are experiencing whiplash.

At a recent tasting from the Champagne portfolio of Terry Thiese (an importer who has defined the cutting edge, artisanal fizz movement in the US) I conducted an informal survey of the producers in attendance. While some agreed that a wider bowl could be more helpful in letting their wines reveal their latent flavors and aromas, a surprising number drew the line at using decanters. Preserving their wines’ effervescence was an important priority.

Fizz(ling) Out?

Both of these trends turn our classic understanding of Champagne on its head. There is no doubt that 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 this glassware requires the taster to appreciate a sparkling wine as one would a still wine. While most drinkers would reasonably see the flatness as a fault, some connoisseurs do appreciate older Champagnes that have lost their bubbles over time.

The theories that form the logic behind this “glassware revolution” are understandable. How the wine industry handles the delicate matter of introducing these controversial service ideas to a deservedly skeptical public will determine whether it can achieve wider acceptance. Most important, however, is the question of whether bubbles are still a vital to the idea of sparkling wine. That is something each consumer and, ultimately the sparkling wine industry, must decide.

For a quick sip on some of the wines reviewed in the 2012 Champagne Report (to be released 12/14), check out some of our favorites on!