One of the first things I remember learning about Champagne was that small bubbles were better than large ones. Now, shockingly, that notion has been turned upside down – or at least sideways – by new research. Big bubbles have a benefit. But the “size debate” has only just begun.
The first time I went to the Champagne region, a winemaker took me aside and showed me a glass of Perrier water. These, he said, were not “good” bubbles—not for Champagne anyway. The almost microscopic beads in his prestige cuvée? Now those were a sign of quality. He explained that small bubbles were a sign of long aging on yeast lees and thus, an indication of complexity and richness.
But new research by Professor Gérard Liger-Belair, a physicist at the University of Reims, France, and an expert in bubbles, indicates that large bubbles have one clear advantage. In an email to me, Liger-Belair wrote, “Larger bubbles may be more efficient than small ones to help release aromas. As bubbles burst, they project a multitude of tiny droplets above the Champagne surface. Fast-travelling droplets partly evaporate thus increasing the perception of aromas.”
According to Liger-Belair, the ideal bubble for maximizing aroma is approximately 3 mm in diameter. (Bubble size in Champagne and sparkling wine has a surprisingly wide range–from 0.4mm to 4mm across.)
Liger-Belair continued, “I obviously do not mean that Champagnes or sparkling wines with smaller bubbles are ‘bad.’ They simply release aromas a bit less efficiently.” He also notes that his research did not consider the perception of flavor in the mouth, which he calls a “more complex phenomenon.”
I contacted several winemakers in Champagne to ask for their views. Each responded along similar lines—saying essentially that bubble size and aroma were only a small part of what makes for a great Champagne. Explained Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Chef de Caves of Louis Roederer, “Bubbles are important for the bouquet of the wine, but they are even more important for the texture of the wine and the mouthfeel… You cannot look only at the physics of bubbles to assess the quality of a wine.”
Fair enough. But Lecaillon’s next point was something I’ve never heard any winemaker suggest: “I am not sure that in Champagne the best wines are the most aromatic,” he said. “In fact, I would almost believe the opposite, since one is looking for discreet, elegant, chalky, mineral and subtle flavors. As far as Champagne is concerned, I strongly believe that the more elegance, the more finesse, the better the wine! The question is always the same: are you more sensitive to the obvious, strong and powerful aspects or do you look for refinement, elegance and more intellectual satisfaction?”
He went on: “As for the texture, I am sure that small bubbles are much more subtle and integrated than big bubbles. The bigger the bubbles, the more they interact with the other compounds and make the wine seem unsettled and dissociated. Great Champagne has to be seamless and effortless.”
Staring down into a glass of Champagne, I watched as one million bubbles (another Liger-Belair statistic) stared back at me. I drank them all. “Effortless” seemed like the right word.