New Year's Eve: Listen to Your Champagne Bubbles to Tell How Good It Is
Not all bubbles are created equal.
The time-honored tradition of toasting to the New Year with tinkling glasses of champagne stretches back at least 130 years, though historical accounts, like our memories, are a bit fuzzy. What is clear is that many of today’s New Year’s parties serve lower-quality bubbly in place of champagne, which technically can be only produced in the Champagne region of France. Fortunately, acoustical scientists have learned how to “listen” for the quality of your sparkling drink.
Generally speaking, sparkling wines get better with age, and as the years go by their bubbles shrink. “Old champagnes always show tiny bubbles, mainly because they have aged several years and lost a significant amount of dissolved CO2, the gas that produces the bubbles,” explained French chemist Gerard Liger-Belair, author of Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, to NPR in 2012. More recently, scientists at the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas Austin discovered that they could listen to the sound of bubbles in sparkling wine to tell how small or big they are.
"They basically ring like bells, and the frequency of that ringing depends in part on the size of the bubbles.
“The point of the project is to study the sounds that champagne bubbles make, and to see what we can infer about the bubbles from the sounds that they make,” said Kyle S. Spratt, Ph.D., an investigator on the project, which was presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in 2017.
“Bubbles are very resonant. They basically ring like bells, and the frequency of that ringing depends in part on the size of the bubbles,” he said.
The team discovered, using an instrument called a hydrophone and a bottle of pricey Moët & Chandon champagne, that the smaller bubbles in expensive bubbly make higher-pitched sounds. For comparison, they listened to the bubbles in Cook’s California champagne, which goes for about $10 a pop. They were bigger, and thus lower-pitched.
It might be hard to listen in on your glass this year without the team’s fancy hydrophone, but you’ll be able to tell by glancing at the bubbles in your glass what pitch they’d make to ring in the New Year.
That said, the activity of the bubbles has a lot to do with the type of glass you’re drinking from, too. Testing both glass champagne flutes and Styrofoam cups, the team found that bubbles tended to stick to the walls of the latter, transforming their sound regardless of their size.
In previous experiments, Liger-Belair found that, given the choice between a tall, slim champagne flute and the shallow, wide-rimmed champagne coupe, the former will lead to a better drinking experience. A champagne flute allows more carbon dioxide to collect at the top of the glass, where it better produces the nose-tickling sensation associated with enjoying bubbly. Coupes are thought to provide more room for the wine to interact with oxygen in the air, helping develop its aroma, but they also seem to allow more carbon dioxide to diffuse more quickly.
Liger-Belair wrote in a 2012 PLOS One paper, “From the consumer point of view, the role of bubbling is indeed essential in champagne, in sparkling wines, and even in any other carbonated beverage.”
That said, just because bubbly isn’t from Champagne doesn’t mean it won’t make for a good New Year’s Eve toast. Cava, Prosecco, Riesling Sekt, Asti Spumanti, and the wide variety of sparkling wines available all count as “sparkling” in that they’ve been fermented to produce fizzy carbon dioxide. Small or big, high-pitched or low, bubbles are bubbles — and chances are, after enough toasting, all their popping will sound the same.