Feb. 9, 2012 at 8:30 PM ET
Here's some science to celebrate on Valentine's Day: Researchers have shown why champagne tastes fizzier when it's drunk from a tall, narrow glass rather than a wide, shallow bowl.
Wine aficionados generally prefer the narrow glasses known as flutes over the wide glasses known as coupes — but a study published this week in the open-access journal PLoS ONE provides a scientifically tested rationale. It's all about the bubbles.
"Without bubbles, champagne would be unrecognizable, beers and sodas would be flat," researchers from France's University of Reims report. "However, the role of effervescence is suspected to go far beyond the solely aesthetical point of view. Recently, by use of ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry, it was indeed demonstrated that ascending bubbles radiate a cloud of tiny champagne droplets overconcentrated with compounds known to be aromatic or the precursors of aromas."
In short, the more bubbles you have, the more aroma you get from the bubbly. What's more, those carbon dioxide bubbles are the things that tickle your nose so enticingly.
It only makes sense that having a glass with wider surface area at the top would disperse the escaping CO2 bubbles more widely than a narrow-mouthed flute, thus taking the bang out of the bubbly more quickly. To see experimentally whether that was the case, the researchers set up an experiment in which they poured good French champagne into flutes and coupes, and then watched what happened.
The researchers used a micro gas chromatograph to track the levels of CO2 and evaporating alcohol in the "headspace" just above the surface of the liquid, where all the olfactory action is when you take a sip of champagne.
"All along the first 15 minutes following pouring, concentrations of gaseous CO2 found close to the edge of the flute are approximately between two and three times higher than those reached above the coupe," the researchers reported.
The findings confirmed the common-sense preference for flutes over coupes. Here's how the researchers put it in their paper: "Fluxes of gaseous CO2 per unit surface area offered to gas discharging are indeed significantly higher above the surface of the flute than above the surface of the coupe because the same total amount of dissolved CO2 ... has to be released by bubbles from a narrower surface, thus concentrating in turn more gaseous CO2 in the headspace above the flute."
No surprise there. But the researchers were surprised to find that the temperature at which the champagne was served had little to no effect on the CO2 levels measured in the headspace. In retrospect, they surmised that factors such as CO2 density differences at the varying temperatures (53 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 12 and 20 degrees Celsius).
Sounds like somebody's going to have to do another experiment.
This isn't the first time champagne has been poured in the name of science, and it probably won't be the last. The University of Reims research group is the same one responsible for earlier findings about the physics of fizz — such as the discovery that champagne retains its bubbles better if you pour the wine down the side of the glass, and the revelation that champagne poured into smooth-walled glasses holds onto its bubbles longer than wine in scratched glasses.
It's no surprise that University of Reims is big on wine research when you consider that Reims is the largest city in France's Champagne region. And it wouldn't be surprising if some of the findings wind up in future editions of wine tasting guides. In a news release, study co-author Clara Cilindre suggested as much, saying that the results she and her colleagues came up with "might be a precious resource to depict [a] champagne consumer's sensation according to various tasting conditions."
More scientific angles on alcohol:
In additon to Cilindre, the authors of "Monitoring Gaseous CO2 and Ethanol Above Champagne Glasses: Flute Versus Coupe, and the Role of Temperature" include Gerard Liger-Belair, Marielle Bourget, Herve Pron and Guillaume Polidiri.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.