Are conscious pleasures are any more heightened than unconscious ones? “Voyage au Coeur d’une bulle de champagne” certainly makes a convincing claim for the former. Published by Odile Jacob in 2011, in French only for the moment, this is the perfect holiday gift for one’s favored Frenchman, oenophile, or anyone else looking for a little scientific reasoning behind the ever-festive bubble.

Following the 2009 title by the same author, “Le Champagne: Effervescence, la science du champagne”, the latest focuses exclusively on the bubble. It charts its birth, its trajectory north and final burst at the surface, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of its medium of delivery (coupe or flûte?). Along the way, Liger-Belair empirically confirms some beliefs, completely overturning other long-held false assumptions.

Liger-Belair, teacher and researched since 2002 at the University of Reims-Champagne-Ardenne, together with Polidori who is a professor in fluid mechanics, developed and mastered visualization techniques using infrarouge cameras, macroscopic lenses, gas chromatography measurement tools, colorants and a system of tomography lasers to view processes normally invisible to the naked eye – some of these techniques are borrowed from imaging tools used in the aeronautics industry.

Effervescent wine was at first a mistake, the result of a cold front that passed over the Champagne region in the 15th century that interrupted normal fermentation processes, that then started again in the springtime – a second fermentation process that produced carbonic gas. The Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon was even ordered by the Catholic church to study ways of reducing this from happening, until further experiments in England with adding sugar to increase alcohol content, that also resulted in effervescence, eventually led Pérignon to cultivate and perfect this process of second fermentation, transforming this anomaly into quality. The “champenoise method” led to the founding in 1729 of Ruinart, in 1743 of Moët Chandon and the rest is history.

Champagne is made of only three grapes from the eponymous region (which is strictly controlled): Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Their unique mixture is the secret behind every champagne that, together with age, influences partly their aromas. And so to drink….

POP THE BOTTLE:

The pressure in a bottle is six times greater than atmospheric pressure, three times the inflation pressure of a car tire. A cork pops 50 KM/H, potentially blinding those in its path that can reach several meters.

What emerges from the bottleneck is composed of carbonic gas, formed with water alcohol, a little like water vapor that condenses to form clouds…

IDEAL TEMPERATURE:

The colder Champagne is served, the less carbonic gas is lost when served (a good thing), but serve it too cold and it does not express its aromas. The ideal temperature is 8-12 Celsius.

ABOUT THE BUBBLES:

One bubble is about 0.5 millimeters in size and there are more bubbles in a bottle of champagne than there are people in France.

There can be up to 2 million bubbles per flûte, most of which escapes invisible at the surface, with 20% causing the hypnotic trail of bubbles throughout the liquid.

WHAT CAUSES THEM?

It is commonly believed that the shape of the glass in which it is served creates bubbles.

In fact, they are caused by miniscule tubular structures made of cellulose suspended in the air or on the cloth used to wipe the glass, for example – environmental impurities, essentially. The authors used optic microscopes to locate the structures (called nucleation sites) through a rapid-fire camera. Up to 30 bubbles per second can leave one tubular structure.

Interestingly, in an “ideal glass” devoid of environmental influences, there would be no bubbles.

BUBBLE SIZE = QUALITY?

Contrary to popular belief, the size of the bubbles does indicate quality, aromatics or taste. The bubbles of beer, for example, are finer than champagne.

Size is more closely related to the form of the glass (the higher they have to rise in a flûte, the larger they will be) and the age of the champagne, which of course will make it easy to confound bubbles size with the quality of the taste.

AND, SO THEY RISE:

Bubbles get larger as they rise, and as they do, drag along with them liquid to create small whirlwinds, joining other bubbles in a “kiss” formation, even fusing sometimes.

Their upwards propulsion is proportional to their volume, their speed directly a function of the gravity of the earth where the champagne is served, or the atmospheric pressure.

Champagne bubbles on the moon would rise six times faster, as there is six times less gravitational force); they would also be 50 % larger.

TO TASTE

Champagne is, in fact, a living material with extreme diversity that is in constant mutation. When champagne bubbles rise to the top, there is a thin film that keeps them below the surface until they pop, making a subtle noise when they do, tickling the tongue and releasing aromatic molecules.

The champagne glass of a woman with lipstick on will have less bubbles, notably, than a man’s because red lipstick contains fats, which make bubbles, pop faster…

COUPE vs. FLÛTE?

The low and broad coupe is famously rumored to have been modeled after the breast of Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV (1715-1774) though it is rather cumbersome to walk with and sips down easily.

The large surface of the coupe allows the bubbles to be very fine once they reach the top and they disperse the aromas more delicately. The flute produces larger bubbles (as they take longer to ascend) and provide a more concentrated – sometimes too strong – of a “nose”. The flute also allows a more beautiful view of the bubble trajectory. The flute retains the carbonic gas, so there is longevity of effervescence that can sometimes agitate for more than a half hour.

The ideal, the authors say – almost as a dare to designers – is an ideal is a mix between the two.

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“Voyage au coeur d’une bulle de champagne” celebrates what the author describes as “a light science, as light as a champagne bubble”. He references scientific theories such as the Rayleigh effect, those of Archimedes, and even the photographs of Harold Edgerton, his famous images documenting movement. In the future, he intends to work more with chemists in arena of aroma analysis.

Subtle indeed are the physics of liquid, and there is poetry in popping a bottle, at the very least enlightened pleasure. As Liger-Belair says, “We enjoy champagne more in understanding it.”


The Champagne Diet
Not covered in “Voyage au coeur d’une bulle de champagne” are the health and calorie benefits of sipping on Champagne relative to other drinks. The Champagne Diet is the latest weight loss craze from America, devised by a former MTV executive Cara Alwill Leyba who managed to combine her Champagne lifestyle with a shrinking waistline. Check out www.thechampagnediet.com to quash any drinker’s remorse.