Separating champagne science from champagne dreams

A bartender serves a flute of champagne at Goss, a champagne bar, at Ginza shopping district in Tokyo June 10, 2014. (Issei Kato / Reuters)

There is champagne, and then there is the idea of champagne.

Champagne is what people drink on New Year’s Eve. The idea of it is what gets smashed onto the hulls of yachts and sprayed on joyful men after championship games. “Champagne continually has to defend itself,” the wine columnist Hugh Johnson once wrote, “against the danger of becoming a notion rather than a wine.”

It is a legendary beverage, and there’s enough overlap between mythology and history to warrant some clarifications. For example, the widely shared story of the French monk Dom Pierre Pérignon accidentally inventing champagne, tasting it, then shouting, “Come quickly! I’m drinking the stars!” is almost certainly apocryphal. (The quote itself, can be traced back to a 19th-century advertisement, according to Rod Phillips’s book, A Short History of Wine.) In Pérignon’s day, fermentation that made still wine bubbly was a manufacturing error, and an embarrassing one to be avoided.

Also, lodging a spoon in the neck of an open bottle of champagne does not help it retain its fizz overnight. Recorking a bottle with a balloon, though charming, is similarly ill-advised. Shelving it in the fridge, however, might make actually make champagne sparkle a little longer. “When you start to heat water or a liquid, you drive the gas out of it,” the chemist Richard Zare told NPR back in 2010. “So keeping it cold is the secret, we think, to keep it fizzing.” (Or, you know, you could just finish the bottle while it’s fresh.)

Another reason to keep the champagne chilled: It makes unexpected popping less likely. High-speed corks clock in around 50 miles per hour, fast enough to shatter glass, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Of course, the same built-up pressure that makes champagne hazardous to open is what creates its effervescence.

Ah, those bubbles.

They’re part of why, in the 19th century, champagne was often prescribed as a medicine, particularly for those with exhaustion. “There is a quality in all sparkling wines, and in champagne specially, that is wanting in still wines,” The New York Times wrote in 1876. “Champagne seems to convey to the worn-out and the depressed something of the sparkle and brightness that makes its own bubbles pretty to look on.”

The ephemerality of that spectacle, how quickly champagne’s fizz dies down, is all part of the drink’s elegance, playfulness, and enduring appeal. Champagne is known for aging poorly. Which is a handy metaphor for a beverage that’s so often consumed to mark the passage of time—yet it’s only partly true.

Five years ago, scuba divers in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea discovered a twin-masted schooner shipwrecked in the 1800s. Amid the great ship’s splintered remains was something unexpected: 168 bottles of ancient champagne dotted in the sand.

Upon further inspection, the bottles were identified as having been made by at least two renowned champagne houses: Veuve Clicquot and Juglar, which was acquired by Jacquesson in 1829. For some 200 years this champagne sat chilled, unperturbed, and bathed in darkness, 160 feet beneath the surface of the sea.

“When one of the champagne bottles was brought to the surface earlier, the pressure change caused the cork to pop,” Richard Vines wrote for Bloomberg in 2010. “One diver took a swig from the bottle expecting it to taste of seawater and realized that it was good.”

Later, when a formal tasting was arranged, his assessment of the shipwreck champagne was corroborated. Eleven of the bottles ended up selling at auction for more than $150,000, or $14,000 apiece.

The bubbles were gone. But it still tasted sweet.