Uncorked: The Science of Champagne – Gérard Liger-Belair

29 Jun

Yes, I read a book about the science of champagne.  I’m just as puzzled by that as you are.  Or worse… maybe you’re not puzzled at all and consider this just something that I would do.  After all, I’ve taken time to write up a list of uses for dental floss.  It’s less sinking to a new low and more rising to a new weird.

This book was really good though in its own merry way.  And for someone who doesn’t give a hoot about physics as they apply to her daily life, I was suprised at how readable it was.  Perhaps it helps that the author is a charming Frenchman.  He’s also an Associate Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne.  So he’s a smarty pants, too.  He even closes the book by saluting the reader for taking the time to learn about this fair art and to increase one’s vocabulary in regards to beauty.  I was so flattered that I told the Mister of this and he smirked as he said “surfactants?  Yes, a whole new vocabulary of beauty, baby.”  He’s not as easily charmed (or amused) as I am.

Let me quickly sum up the points that I thought were the most interesting.  First off, there isn’t a single grape used for champagne.  A typical bottle has about 40 different wines in it.  And someone very talented blends them together and knows how it will taste after they have fermented.  It’s like fortune telling for booze.  There is a certain amount of turning that happens during the fermentation, too.  Otherwise the dead yeast cells would form a nice little souvenir at the bottom of the bottle.  Lovely.  The French even came up with a process for removing the yeast that involves freezing the neck and then removing the cork.  The ice shoots out and some wine comes out with it.  This is when they add a propietary blend of wine and sugar.  You see the sugar is what helps to create the fizzing and the slightly higher alcoholic content of champagne.

Then there’s the glass we’re drinking the stuff out of.  In the past the goblet was preferred and there are stories of the shape being inspired by legendary breasts, such as those of Madame Pompadour or Marie Antoinette.  Shapes asize, the goblet doesn’t allow for much bubbling.  There is more surface space for the bubbles to escape.  Nowadays most of us drink from a flute (or directly from the bottle, you lushes!).  The long stem and small mouth mean for more bubbles, wouldn’t Lawrence Welk be thrilled?

I also learned how the bubbles function differently in champagne and beer than in sparkling water.  In beer and champagne the bubbles have proteins to hold onto.  These bits are called surfactants and they weigh the bubble down.  So as it rises to the surface, a few surfactants stabilize but too many slow it down so much that the whole chain is disturbed.  It’s like a production line where Laverne and Shirley are drunk.  Lastly, I learned that there has to be something in your glass – some lint, a stray bit of dust, something – to allow for bubble formation.  If you tried pouring bubbly in a sterile glass it would look like flat wine.  Since those bubbles deliver aromas and a tickle to your nose we want them to stick around.  Or at least we do now, they weren’t always popular and it took a boost from the court of Louis XIV to get things moving.  Yet another thing that we have to thank the Sun King for.  Salut!

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