When you look into a glass of champagne, what do you see?
Do you see the universe displayed in front of you, do you see the stars and galaxies, do you see the music, the friends, the love or do you see the ship of the artisans of the winemaker?
Any glass of sparkling wine has bubbles, large bubbles, medium bubbles or small bubbles, with the small bubbles normally indicating better quality, but is there something more to see. Winemakers spend many years of their lives perfecting the colors, aromas and flavors of their sparkling wines, but one thing we don’t talk about much is bubbles and I’m not just talking about their size.
How are sparkling wine bubbles made?
To first understand if bubbles tell a story, we need to understand how sparkling wine bubbles are made, we need to go through the fermentation process.
The First Fermentation transforms the sugar of the grape juice into wine, it alcoholizes the juice.
The second fermentation is where the bubbles come in, they add yeast and sugar to the juice, the yeast will then start to consume the sugar which creates carbon dioxide and also increases the alcohol content.
If we look at one of the most famous sparkling wines, champagne, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, after adding yeast and sugar, the fermentation process lasts only 2 months, increasing the content of alcohol and creating carbon pressure inside the bottle, creating the bubbles.
Once the yeast has finished eating the sugar, the yeast dies and begins to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Yeast can stay in the bottle for up to 30 years, to put it simply, the longer you leave the yeast in the bottle the finer the bubbles will be and generally speaking the better quality champagne you will get.
Let me clarify something, you can leave the yeast in the bottle until the end of time, the champagne might last forever, but the bubbles will eventually go away, I once tasted a bottle of champagne from the 1966 vintage (the same the year England won the World Cup) and it remains one of the best champagnes I have ever tasted, despite the lack of bubbles.
In this example, all the CO2 had dissolved, slowly escaping over the years through the cap.
How important is bubble size for winemakers?
The only way to answer this question was to contact well-known winemakers and ask them directly. I asked 4 winemakers from 4 different countries, including Champagne and Prosecco.
I’ll start with Prosecco, reach out to Villa Sandi’s head winemaker, Stefano Gava, then head to Champagne for Laurent Lequart with the same question, then I went to Slovenia, asking a sparkling wine producer very skilled called Igor Tiefengraber and finishing in my home country of England, I ask Sam Lindo, Camel Valley’s head winemaker, his views on bubble size.
Stefano Gava – Head Winemaker at Villa Sandi
“The importance of having bubbles of medium-small diameter is essential to obtain a product with organoleptic characteristics of absolute value. A small bubble determines a fine and elegant perlage, almost velvety in the mouth.
Laurent Lequart – Owner and Winemaker at Champagne Laurent Lequart
“I attach great importance to the quality of the wines as well as to the effervescence of my wines. The attention paid to the vinification and conservation of the wines will have an effect on the finesse of the bubbles.
“But before judging a wine on the delicacy of the bubbles and its effervescence, you must already take care to know the progress of the vinification and the age of this cuvée. A rich cuvée with a lot of fat and prolonged aging will have less abundant effervescence and less airy bubbles.
Igor Tiefengraber – Owner and Sparkling Wine Producer at Evana Tiefengraber
“I never thought of myself as a winemaker but as a producer of sparkling wines because I decided to make only top quality sparkling wines 30 years ago when I finished my graduate studies in oenology at the ‘UCI Davis.
“Of course, it must be said that sparkling wines were not as attractive then as they are today. Especially those, which were like mine, which were made without the use of oenological auxiliaries, without the use of sulfur and produced in a sustainable way. Namely, I have always relied solely on knowledge and scientific approach in the winemaking process.
“Since then I have been fascinated by watching the bubbles in the bottle, like a fisherman staring at his bait for days and days.”
“Bubbles are an essential part of sparkling wine, which is why we call them that. A sparkling wine without bubbles is just a wine.
Sam Lindo – Head Winemaker at Camel Valley
“Yes, the quality of bubbles and foam is important for the perception of wine quality. From a viticultural point of view, I don’t care too much. The glass the wine is served in can kill all effort in a flash.
Do smaller bubbles mean better quality sparkling wine?
You will see small bubbles quite often on vintage Champagnes or Traditional Method sparkling wines, but this is not exclusively the case, even Charmat/Tank Method sparkling wines, such as Prosecco, can get very small and elegant bubbles .
If you hear someone say that sparkling wine has very “fine” bubbles, they are saying that sparkling wine has small bubbles.
Do you agree with the statement that “smaller bubbles mean higher quality sparkling wine”?
“I fully agree with this statement.” – Stefano Gava
“I agree with you, bubble size means higher quality sparkling wine although occasionally the quality of the cut or glass may be questioned.” – Laurent Lequart
“The size of the bubbles is due to the proteins present in the wines and the absence of things that could have a negative effect on the foam such as oils. Small bubbles may indicate that the wine is made using the traditional method.
“Historically, traditional method sparkling wines that spent more time on the lees developed finer bubbles, so this was a sign of prolonged aging on the lees. However, in the UK we also get beneficial protein in wines as the grapes have a longer 30-40 day hanging time and develop more protein. We can therefore have small bubbles with young wines. – Sam Lindo
“In my experience, the size of the bubbles depends mainly on the age of the sparkling wine, further from the internal surface of the wine in the bottle (area of microparticles to which the CO2 binds), the size and the design of the glass and the temperature of the glass and the sparkling wine when serving.
“As sparkling wine ages, the proportion of dissolved CO2 in the wine increases and the amount of free CO2 in the bottle decreases proportionally. It is a purely physical law. Consequently, older sparkling wines release CO2 heavier and more slowly, forming smaller bubbles that last longer. BTW, in our 10+ year EVANAs we have 95% dissolved CO2.
“On the contrary, when opening younger sparkling wines, we see larger bubbles of free, unbound CO2, which blows our noses with its freshness. That’s why I call this type of sparkling wine wines ordinary sparkling wines, and old gourmet sparkling wines.
“Which bubble size is the most important?” For my gourmet sparkling wine production line, it sure is long endless vertical chains of fine little bubbles.
For producers of other types of sparkling wines that stay shorter on lees, or for the production of Charmat, of course, the criteria concerning the size of the bubbles are quite different.
Personally, I think the duration of bubbles is much more important than their size.
“The rest is mostly commanded by Mother Nature, physical laws cannot be changed, the older the sparkling wine, the smaller its bubbles. This means in most cases it has a finer quality at the same time .
“I personally agree with your statement.” – Igor Tiefengraber
Where are all the bubbles going?
Have you ever left a glass of sparkling wine outside overnight, I guess not many of you have, why waste good bubbly, but if you ever did, you would notice that when you woke up, all the bubbles were gone, that’s because all the CO2 from the glass escaped.
When opening a bottle of sparkling wine, you can immediately lose up to 80% of the CO2 trapped inside the bottle, which is why you can send corks flying at up to 30 mph and even end up really bruising or even killing someone, is it very rare to do this, but never point a plug at someone, especially with the metal casing.
But you don’t have to lose 80% of the CO2 right off the bat, slowly releasing the bottle cap with a whisper, rather than letting it fly with a loud bang, you’ll save more of the precious CO2.
At any time, you might see over 400 bubbles per second in your Glass of Bubbly.
But your glass could be an obstacle to your front row seat for the dancing bubbles, it depends on what kind of glass you have and even how the glass has been cleaned down to how many bubbles you see, sometimes the sparkling wine itself doesn’t have a lot of bubbles to show you, but sometimes they get suppressed by your glass, cut glass is one of the worst to show bubbles, if you want to know more check out What is the best glass to serve champagne in?