Sparkling wine is spectacular. Some Fizzerati have elevated the service of fizz to performance art: sabrage and champagne fountains show brio and verve. However, most of the time when simply sharing a bottle with friends, a more low key service is approriate. Here’s how to serve with taste and discretion.
You fine fizz deserves to be served slightly chilled. Ideally you should sip it at 10˚C. It is perfectly acceptable to serve it slightly colder – at say 8˚C – to accommodate it warming up in the glass. If fizz is too cold then you will not be able to taste its full flavours. Cold masks the wine and any defects: That’s why inferior fizz is often served brutally chilled. Beware.
Chill your fizz in an ice bucket with some ice and little water and wait for about 20 minutes. It should be perfect. Or if you have a wine fridge, chill it there to 8˚C.
It is best not to chill it in a standard fridge. The fridge temperature is 4˚C so it is too cold and will over-chill your wine. However if you do chill in the fridge, don’t leave the bottle in there for more than an hour.
Never, ever put your bottle in the freezer. The extreme cold will destroy all the delicate characteristics of the wine. There is also a risk of fizz lollies and explosion.
If you have put your bottle in the freezer (Tut! Tut!) and think you have overdone it, please don’t put it near a radiator/fire/Aga to redress the balance. You will just damage the wine further.
This is a topic that triggers trenchant opinions. Whatever your choice someone will criticise it – so choose the glass you like best and wear earplugs.
Glassware is a fashion victim. The glass emphasises whichever characteristics of fizz were trendy at the time.
Sediment: In the nineteenth century champagne was decanted, or served in hollow stemmed glasses to get rid of the sediment.
Sweet: By the 1930s fizz was served in coupes. These wide-mouthed flat glasses let the bubbles dissipate quickly, particularly when attacked with the essential fashion accessory – a swizzle-stick. A brisk whisk with one of these would burst the bubbles and make it flatter than a flapper’s frontage. In those days, fizz was sweet and the loss of bubbles made it taste even sweeter. Sadly when the bubbles fled so did most of the flavours. Coupes can warm wines and make them less refreshing.
Bubbles: When bubbles came back into fashion, the fashionable adopted the champagne flute. This iconic slender stemmed glass preserves and directs the precious bubbles and aromas to the nose through its narrow mouth. A deliberate rough spot made in the bottom of the glass collected bubbles and guided them upwards in a single stream – a ‘string of pearls’. A flute celebrates effervescence. It restricts air contact with the wine so the fizz fabulously fresh, although the restricted air contact means that aromas cannot evolve fully. The only real problem with a flute is, you can’t get you nose in it for a sniff, particularly the ultra-skinny ones popular in the nineties. So if you using flutes, use fat flutes.
Aromas: In the naughties some sommeliers prefer to taste fizz in a tulip or white wine glass. This acknowledges that fizz is serious wine rather than flippant pop. The fuller belly of the glass allows greater air contact with the wine which lets the aromas develop, the narrow neck maintains effervescence but is wide enough to taste fizz as its best. Some Parisian sommeliers decant Demi-Sec fizz to reduce the bubbles and enhance the sweetness. Decanting allows subtle aromas to evolve, but is not spectacular, and can leave your fizzfest feeling a bit flat.
So choose your glass according to what you want to emphasise: the bubbles, the freshness or the flavours. Don’t fret about it. Anything goes.
One final tip on glasses: just wash them hot water and leave to drain and dry. Please don’t dry them with a cloth that sheds fibres – it will dull the bubbles. If you have unsightly dried water marks on your glassware, hover the glass over boiling water and the steam will give enough humidity to be able to polish them off with a fibre-free glass polishing cloth.
OPENING THE BOTTLE
So put your sparkling glasses down and pick up your bottle of Sparkling. First, dry it. Then rest the base of the bottle against your body so that it feels secure. Hold the bottle in your dominant hand at a 45 degree angle, facing away from you. Don’t point it at anyone else either. It makes them nervous.
Peel away the foil and untwist the metal circular opener on the metal cage to loosen it. Do not remove the cage. Keeping you hand over the cage and the cork, twist the bottle slowly. That’s twist the bottle – Not the cork. You will feel a little pressure in the cork when you are close to it coming free. Just remember to take it nice and slowly keeping you hand over the cork. As the cork leaves the bottle the fizz will give a sigh of release. It should not pop or squirt. The cork stays safely in your hand.
HOLDING THE BOTTLE
Put your thumb in the punt in the base of the bottle and balance the bottle on your fingers. You may feel suspiciously like a waiter but the bottle in this position is secure, balanced and pours easily. There’s no need to wrap the bottle in a napkin unless you are ashamed of what you are serving to your guests.
Pick up a glass by the stem so as not to warm it and tilt it at 45˚ so that you can pour the fizz down the side of the glass, rather than onto the base. This prevents the fizz from losing too much of its initial bubbles. Pause to let the froth subside and then resume pouring to fill the glass. Pause as many times as you like. Twist the bottle slightly as you remove it from the side of the glass to avoid drips.
I’ve heard of one ostentatious oligarch who insisted that his Jeroboams of champagne were served from bottles being hefted on the waiters’ shoulders. Inevitably every guest and their finery was drenched. Sometimes less is more.
Do take a moment to admire the bright clarity, the elegant bubbles and its dancing vivacity. Please don’t swirl the glass – it destroys within seconds years of work to make the perfect persistent but fine bubbles. Hold the glass by the stem to prevent warming. Take a quick sniff and see what aromas you can identify. When you sip it, let it roll around your mouth in a louche fashion. Swallow (or spit if you absolutely must) and consciously breathe out. Your taste receptors are particularly powerful at the base of your nose so you will taste much more on exhalation.
The most important thing is that fizz is fun. It’s a celebration drink that doesn’t need to be too formal. No-one will mind effervescent exuberance if it happens. Relax. Enjoy.