The Science of Champagne Bubbles up Again for New Year's Eve

If you really want to impress your champagne-sipping friends tonight, be sure to chill a big bottle of bubbly to somewhere between 39 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (4 to 9 degrees Celsius), bring out the narrow glasses (not those wide plastic cups!) and pour the stuff gently down the angled side of the glass like beer.

This is the scientific way to treat champagne, based on research conducted over the years by Gerard Liger-Belair, a physicist at the University of Reims in France's Champagne region. His studies on the behavior of bubbly -- including high-speed photography of popping bubbles and infrared imaging of carbon dioxide flow -- have made him the world's highest-profile expert on champagne science.

"I love the beauties behind bubble science," Liger-Belair said in an email. "Since I became a scientist, many people have remarked that I seem to have landed the best job in all of physics, since my research on bubbles requires that I work in a lab stocked with top-notch champagne -- and I'd be inclined to agree."

For Liger-Belair and his colleagues, it's mostly about the bubbles. To be sure, there's much more to sparkling wine than the sparkle: As many as 80 different vintages of wine may be blended together to create one batch of champagne using the traditional process. A small amount of yeast and sugar is added, and the bottles are sealed up for fermentation. Months later, the yeast sediment is blown out through the bottle's neck -- and then the bottle is quickly corked up and wired shut.

Liger-Belair's research focuses on what happens next, when the cork is popped off. The CO2 that was created through the fermentation process bubbles out of the wine -- tickling the nose with a fizzy aerosol of alcohol and flavorful ingredients known as volatile organic compounds. The more CO2 that can be liberated after the champagne is poured into the glass, the better.

That's where science comes into play. Liger-Belair and his colleagues recently reported that larger bottles of champagne retain more CO2 in the wine as it's being poured into the glasses. So if you have a choice between several small bottles and fewer big bottles, go for the big ones. But be sure those bottles are well-chilled: Warm champagne loses its CO2 quickly as it's being poured, leaving less to fizz up out of the glass.

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