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The Champagne Myth

Bubbles may feel special, but sparkling wine shouldn’t only be for celebrations

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Stack of Champagne coupes sit in a box on the left, with a bottle of Champagne held on a pedestal in a box on the right.

Ariel Arce, the founder of Air’s Champagne Parlor in Greenwich Village, among other trendy spots, wants people to take bubbles seriously, but she doesn’t put them on a pedestal, either. That means she doesn’t reserve Champagne for special events. “I don’t really like to classify Champagne as celebratory anymore,” she says. “We have a real revelation with people drinking sparkling wine for every and all occasions. Yes, there is something special about bubbles in anything — sparkling water is more festive than still water — but it’s a well-thought-out and produced wine.”

Back when Louis XIV glugged Champagne, it was not bubbly (“non mousseux”); bubbles then were considered a defect. “Champagne and Burgundy were always at odds, competing to be the preemptive still region for red wine in France,” Arce says. In the mid-17th century, in an effort to carve out its place in the market, Champagne figured out how to make white wine and began focusing on fizz. Over the centuries, things devolved into a gory territory dispute and, in 1927, France passed a law declaring who had exclusive rights to the name Champagne with a capital C: five districts, each known for a particular grape. “There’s 200 years worth of marketing we have to pull back,” Arce says. “People tend to think it’s elite. It’s expensive because of the very restrictive rules and regulations to produce it.”

Bubbles are little experiments with destiny: Sparkling wine begins its life in stillness, waiting to bubble up; at the end, like bodies, bubbles become weak with age. Arce, who is writing a book on sparkling wine, explains that bubbles were a function of geography. “Because of how northern Champagne is,” the local climate was prime for bubbling. “The cold weather would cause the fermentation in-bottle to halt and the cold temperature would essentially put the wine to sleep,” she says. “Once the weather turned warm again, the fermentation process would start back up” — spring delivered effervescence. Today, producers commonly add liqueur de tirage (wine combined with yeast and sugar) for the second fermentation.

Drinkers will notice that bubbles come in different forms. They may be lighter, like a silky white ocean at low tide, or sharper, like bombs on your tongue, crackling. “There are no small or big bubbles; rather, [there are] different atmospheric pressures in a bottle and an amount of sugar that exists in the wine,” Arce explains. “Champagne has five atmospheres of pressure in the bottle, which creates a higher effervescence. Prosecco or semi-sparklers can have less, which can make for less effervescence, a softer mousse, but also a feeling of a larger bubble. Sugar gives weight to Champagne and can sometimes make the wine feel heavier and the bubbles softer. Of course, the longer a bottle of Champagne ages, letting the sugar eat away at it, the more the bubbles will change.”

The ideal, for many producers, is something delicate; fine, tingly bubbles that don’t impose. Some might even prefer to see the bubbles disappear. (“I hate it when you get a bottle with that expansive, nasty mousse,” Cédric Bouchard, of Champagne Roses de Jeanne, told Travel + Leisure. “There is no other word for it: I detest bubbles.”) There is an option that lets the air out altogether: Coteaux Champenois, the still wine of Champagne. “When you go to taste Champagne, the producer will also offer you a taste of their still,” Arce says. “They’re the base wines. Technically, you’re in that process — tasting what they’re like as still wines before they go through the fermentation.” What you get is exactly like the leftovers of New Year’s Eve. Recently, it’s become easier to find; Arce sells some at Air’s. “I really love the red wines of Champagne,” she says.

Still Champagne is like bubbly in its underwear — not fully dressed for the day, but also revealing: Bubbles may only be air, but it turns out they’re important. For one thing, Arce says, “It takes substantially more grapes to produce still red or still white than it does to produce sparkling.” Beyond that, they’re character building; they elevate with that particular, fizzy high. Maybe it’s kid bubble nostalgia.

Air’s is inside a converted townhouse on Macdougal Street with brightly colored gemstone wallpaper, decorative feathers, mirrors, and neon lights that cast a dreamy pink glow over the room. The other night, under bubble lights, a server set out wine glasses for her customers — not flutes. “Champagne flutes were really created as a marketing tool, to set it apart,” she says. “In this glass, you lose some of the bubble. But it allows you to experience the aroma.” The bubbles rested atop of the pour like a lid of tiny, sparkling beads. Nobody in sight was swirling or sniffing; they sipped contentedly and snacked on oysters and grilled cheese with lavender honey.

There are some — only about 15 percent of customers — who order something still, Arce says. Given the setting — the menu lists Champagne facts, with a bubble motif, too — that seems almost an act of defiance. Why resist? With a whiff of incredulity, she says: “Not everybody likes bubbly wine.”

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. She previously worked at the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic.
Bárbara Malagoli is a multidisciplinary artist based in London.