As popping corks announce the New Year, champagne lovers can expect some radical new trends in the art of savouring a tipple that for centuries has been associated with celebration.
Italy's Asti Spumante sparkling wine is on course to outsell French Champagne as revellers around the world toast in the New Year, a study for an agricultural trade magazine predicted Tuesday. (AFP Photo)
The true connoisseur should ditch the traditional long-stemmed flutes and the saucer-shaped coupes and instead start drinking the sparkling white wine from elongated, tulip-shaped glasses, say the experts.
And those seeking to be truly avant-garde should start serving the finest bubbly from carafes.
Champagne has been associated with luxury and festivities since the time when France crowned its kings in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region of northeastern France.
By the 19th century, it had become an affordable indulgence and grown enormously popular. Production shot from 300,000 bottles in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850, and kept growing. In 2008, 405 million bottles were produced.
But recent trends set in motion by champagne producers hope to remind consumers that champagne is not just a celebratory drink but can also be a very fine wine.
To appreciate its subtleties, proper serving vessels are necessary, a point driven home at the recent Grand Tasting in Paris, the annual fine-wine fair hosted by critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve.
"We hate the bloody champagne coupe, because we know there is no nose, no aromas, and that’s half the pleasure. We definitely do not recommend it for champagne," said Philippe Guillon of Riedel, whose glasses were being used at the Grand Tasting.
While they still sell flutes, Guillon sees a move towards a shape reminiscent of a regular wine glass or even the rounder pinot noir glass.
"The glass will affect how the bubbles enter your mouth," he said.
"If it’s too narrow, the bubbles can be overwhelming. The diameter will play a key role in the perception of the tannins, acidity and bitterness. And the shape will definitely affect the aromas."
Andreas Larsson, who was voted 2007 Best Sommelier of the World, agreed.
"I think the optimal glass for champagne is a version of the flute with a slightly wider body and narrow opening to enhance flavour and aroma. There’s still a lot of champagne being served in inferior glasses."
To understand the drive to banish the flute and the coupe, experts point to the complexity of champagne.
"At the heart of champagne is the art of blending," explained Mathieu Kauffmann, Chef de Cave at Bollinger, before a packed audience at the Grand Tasting.
Kauffmann uses grapes from 40 classified vineyards and 200 different wines. A non-vintage champagne is a blend of at least five vintages taken from the cellars’ vast reserves.
"Given the climate, we cannot assure the house style each year without reserves," he said, adding that reserve wines, stored in magnums, are bottled separately both by vineyard and grape variety to enable precision blending.
"My objective is to create a complex, aromatic, and balanced vinous champagne that will go with an entire dinner and age well."
Believing that both the flute and the coupe fall flat in the face of such intricacy, the big-name champagne producers Moet et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Piper Heidsieck and Bollinger have created custom glasses.
"We tested 30 different glasses," said Kauffmann. "We tried it with each cuvee and wanted a glass that would also adapt to a great vintage. Our glass is a cross between a flute and a classic wine glass."
New glasses should be a relatively easy sell, but another new trend in the art of champagne drinking has already sparked controversy.
"The debate is more about decanting, to put it in a carafe or not," said Kauffmann. "I must admit, I was sceptical at first but we did some very interesting experiments."
Philippe Jamesse, Head Sommelier at Les Crayeres, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Reims, comes down firmly against carafing champagne. He is unwilling to sacrifice bubbles for aromas.
"Effervescence is an important aspect of champagne. The chefs de cave take such care and the quality of a champagne is directly related to the quality of the bubbles," he said.
He offered a third solution: "I designed two glasses that allow me to avoid carafing the champagne. Both versions widen at the middle and narrow at the top."
Others feel the carafe offers real possibilities.
"First, it will open up better. It is a wine, we should not forget," said Guillon.
"And second, if I were going to have a champagne dinner, putting it in a decanter will remove part of the effervescence, which will make it easier to digest."
Larsson took a more nuanced approach.
"Consider a gentle decanting beneficial when you enjoy a young, high-quality champagne which is still in a closed phase, just like you would decant a young Burgundy.
"However, for older ones, there’s a risk of overly-oxidizing the champagne and losing too much of the bubbles," he said.
At least one champagne house has positioned itself with the trendsetters. This holiday season, Charles Heidsieck proposes a hand-blown, lyre-shaped decanter for their prestige cuvee, the 1995 vintage Blanc de Millenaires.
This, it believes, will let the wine "express itself fully and reveal its extraordinary aromatic complexity."