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Don't Cork That Champagne

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Don't Cork That Champagne

Food

Don't Cork That Champagne

Don't Cork That Champagne

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There may be more mythology about pouring, drinking and storing Champagne than there is about any other fermented grape juice. Chemist Richard Zare and food writer Harold McGee set the record straight on the proper protocol for enjoying sparkling wines this New Year's Eve.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up, it's just about time for one of my favorite holiday traditions.

(Soundbite of popping champagne)

There you go. That's right, pouring a little bit of the bubbly. Oh, you want to get it on everything there.

The carbon dioxide dissolved in Champagne gives you that satisfying pop, but that's not all. That CO2 affects the taste of sparkling wine, the way it feels in your mouth, and all those little bubbles help deliver Champagne's bouquet, all those great aromas, to your nose. So you don't want to lose too much of that CO2 before you even take a sip.

Well, our friends over in France have a study on the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry that says instead of pouring Champagne the traditional way, which is straight down in to the upright glass, they say you should pour it down the side just like you do with beer, which saves more of the CO2 from bubbling out of your bubbly during the pour. And that solves one of the mysteries of Champagne drinking protocol, the pouring part.

But there are others like how cold should you keep it? What if you don't finish a bottle? What's the best way to store it? Uncorked? You know, there are all kinds of old wives' tales and the cultural things to say, well, there are different ways to store it. How about putting a metal spoon in the neck, people say in France. They do it that way. Some people say in Italy, they say you put metal spoon down the neck. Does that work? Other people say, well, let's put the top, right? Put the top back on and we'll keep the bubbly in. Have you ever heard some people say let's put a balloon. We had a tweet from somebody who said let's put a balloon on top and that will keep it expanding and it'll keep the gas inside.

Well, we decided a few years ago that we wanted to actually get some science in on this. Are there any scientists who were actually looking into this science of keeping the bubbles fresh in a bottle of Champagne after you use it? We're going back to Christmas of 2004 with two experts, chemist Richard Zare and food writer Harold McGee, who cut through some of the Champagne mythology. Let's start off with the basics. What give Champagne it's distinctively bubbly taste and consistency?

Dr. RICHARD ZARE (Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science, Stanford University): Well, there's a whole fermentation process that one goes through to produce it. And this is a quite involved and detailed, in which you to later on add sugar to the bottle after you've let it sit for awhile and actually freeze it's top and take things off and get it so it's carbonated again. It's a fermentation process.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ZARE: But that extra sugar gives it, through the action of yeast, the bubbles...

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. ZARE: ...which some of us really enjoy a great deal. Did you know, for example, that in a simple glass of Champagne, that if you leave it alone long enough, it'll give off something like a million or two million bubbles?

FLATOW: Wow.

We're talking with Harold McGee and Richard Zare this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Well, what about the - I understand though there's an interaction between if you have lipstick and you drink something out of the glass, the lipstick interacts with the Champagne. Is that correct?

Dr. ZARE: Well, anything like - any greasy things like potato chips or French fries or lipstick will actually break up the bubbles, so will leaving too much soap in a glass. And people have, I think, experienced that particularly when they ordered a beer and someone's washed the glass but forgot to wash out the soap and...

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. ZARE: ...it's not pleasant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800...

Dr. ZARE: May I talk about keeping your cool for a moment? Because, actually, Harold McGee and I did some experiments about that in terms of Champagne...

FLATOW: Sure.

Dr. ZARE: ...and cool. And what we're referring to is how to keep a Champagne bottle from going flat after you've opened it. Now, my friends in France tell me that there's no problem. You just drink it so you don't have any need to worry about this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ZARE: But some of us do. And we found that the best thing you can do to keep it with this effervescence is to keep it cold. It turns out that cold liquids dissolve gases much more than hot liquids. When you start to heat water or a liquid, you drive the gas out of it. So keeping it cold is the secret, we think, to keep it fizzing.

And we did some other studies. In fact, they're all...

FLATOW: So you don't have to put the stopper or the cork back in or anything else in the bottle? You just leave it open in the refrigerator?

Mr. HAROLD McGEE (Author, "On Food and Cooking: the Science and Love of the Kitchen"): Well, I was in another part of the experiment because Dick's French friends said that the best way to keep a semi-finished bottle of Champagne fresh was to put a silver spoon in the neck. And we thought that putting a cork in the neck would clearly do a much better job of keeping the carbon dioxide in the bottle.

So we did a blind tasting. We got some friends together who were interested in this kind of science and did a blind tasting. Some bottles, we opened freshly. Some bottles, we left open overnight. Some bottles, we emptied partway and then put a cork in the neck and let that sit overnight.

And we were surprised to find with American sparkling wines, anyway, that some of the bottles that were left open or with a spoon in the neck actually did taste better than bottles that had been recorked.

Dr. ZARE: It's interesting to think about how that could be happening. Wines actually age when you leave them out in the air. There's an oxidation process that goes on. And in a sparkling wine, the gases actually can be removing things from the wine and making it taste sweeter.

Incidentally, that affect really happens in beer. If you taste the head on a beer, it's actually bitterer than the beer itself because the froth has extracted some of the hops flavoring in the foam...

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. ZARE: ...that sits on your beer.

FLATOW: I have noticed that. It's true. Yeah. That was chemist, Richard Zare and food writer, Howard McGee, talking with us on Christmas Eve, 2004, in how to keep your champagne tasting nice and bubbly. If you don't drink it, the take home message, keep it cool. You don't need to cork it. Middle spoon is optional.

That's about all the time we have for SCIENCE FRIDAY this year. We're going to wish a happy New Year. And if you missed any part of it, you can surf over at your website at sciencefriday.com and download our podcast. Also on iTunes, you can download them there. And you can take along our iPhone app and our Android app with you. Have a great and safe holiday weekend. Happy New Year to you all. We'll see you next year.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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