Size matters when it comes to fizz
PUBLISHED: 10:23 17 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013
Champagne expert Henry Speer asks 'How big is your bottle?'
Champagne expert Henry Speer asks How big is your bottle?
Christmas and New Year is the time to blow away those recessionary autumn blues and celebrate with a bottle or two of champagne
Did I say bottle?
Champagne doesnt just come in standard size bottles of 75cl, the ones you are used to, there is a huge range from tiny to very, very big.
Have a look at these.
At the lower end there is the 18.5 or 20cl quarter or split used by airlines and for bijou corporate gifts. This is a bit over a glassful, so if you think it takes at least two people to have a celebration, you will at least need a half bottle, 37.5cl, which does nicely for two people who want a glass and a half before a meal or on Friday night to start the weekend.
But for a proper celebration it has to be bottles or bigger.
In the panel below are the sizes that are commonly recognised. Remember these if you do pub quizzes or are thinking of going on Mastermind or Millionaire. Heres a useful mnemonic My Judy Really Makes Splendid Belching Noises. (Judy is of course the dog!)
The standard bottle is important because champagne generally has its secondary fermentation in these this is the stage in champagne production when the bubbles are created. The still base wine has a small dose of sugar and yeast added to it and a new fermentation starts; but the gases produced during this fermentation cannot escape and are trapped in the wine, to be released as tiny bubbles when the wine is opened again.
Double sized bottles called magnums are also used in this process. Experts agree that champagne is generally better in magnums, although it ages more slowly, as there is proportionately less air admitted through the cork and more room for the subtle elements that make up the wine to mingle and take on the flavour of the yeasts. Over time this creates wines of greater depth and balance.
However the bigger bottles are rarely found. They are more difficult to store and most problematic of all are more likely to explode during fermentation as the gases which are made during secondary fermentation cannot escape. They create a huge amount of pressure in the bottle six times normal air pressure or three times as much as the pressure in a car tyre.
Champagne bottles are designed to handle this; they are made from thick glass produced at high temperatures, and their sloping shoulders and large punts (the big indentation at the bottom) spread the pressure. However, there is a problem with bigger bottles as the size of the bottle gets bigger the surface area inside increases two dimensionally, while the volume of the wine itself increases three dimensionally so more and more pressure is being contained by disproportionally less glass strength. This means that traditionally, with a couple of exceptions (Pommery and Drappier) champagne in jeroboams and above was fermented in bottles and magnums and then put into the larger bottles under pressure, so as not to release the bubbles, in a process known as transvasage. New rules introduced in 1998 mean that only Methuselahs and above can be produced this way. Even though transvasage is carried out under pressure in a closed environment, there is still a loss of bubbles and the champagne is at risk of oxidising more quickly.
So the advantages of champagne in very large bottles of 6 litres or more are mostly novelty value and fun for the occasional very special celebration but not better quality champagne. For champagne at its best go for magnums; better depth and balance than smaller bottles, less hassle than jeroboams and rehoboams and none of the transvasage problems that go with the really big bottles, and they give a greater sense of occasion than the normal size bottles.
And how do you pour from a Nebuchadnezzar weighing 5 stone? My advice is to put it in a wheelbarrow, and lift the handles every time you fill a flute!