Over time the notion of the perfect shape for a champagne glass has changed just as society’s idea of the perfect female form has shifted. The difference is that now we have science to back our preference for the shape of our glassware!
A little history
The champagne coupe, a shallow, broad-bowled, stemmed glass, was popular from the 18th century until the 1970s in France, and lingered longer in the “new world” countries (including Australia).
The coupe is variously cited as being modelled on the perfect breast shape of Madame du Pompadour or Madame du Barry, both mistresses of the French ruler Louis XV; or Marie Antoinette, teen queen of France and wife of Louis XVI; or Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte; or even Helen of Troy! Since the glass coupe was first created in the mid 1660s – a long time after the Trojan War and predating the French ladies by at least half a century – we might have to relegate this story to the myth category.
The idea obviously has appeal though, with Dom Pérignon and Karl Lagerfeld joining forces in 2008 to create a design modelled on the breast of Claudia Schiffer, which comprises a white breast-shaped bowl with a pink nipple sitting atop three white porcelain miniature replicas of Dom Pérignon bottles. A few years later, Kate Moss “lent” her left breast to London’s 34 Restaurant so it could create a coupe based on its shape and size to celebrate her 25 years in the industry.
Salacious lore aside, the coupe is not the glass of choice for champagne connoisseurs. It’s now mostly seen in novelty displays such as champagne towers, rather than on serious tasting and drinking occasions, because it allows the aroma and the bubbles to dissipate too quickly.
Going from one extreme to the other, the champagne flute has become popular and it provides a nice display of the bead, or stream of bubbles, in the champagne but its narrow mouth and cylindrical shape don’t provide good access to the aroma.
Finding the perfect glass
Champagne houses struggled to find the perfect glass, and often made do with white wine glasses until an innovative sommelier found a way to bring the now-preferred tulip-shaped glass into the hands of consumers.
Philippe Jamesse was head sommelier at the Michelin-starred Domaine Les Crayères in Reims for almost two decades and has strong feelings about his tools of trade.
He told Decanter magazine: “I’d always hated the flute. At home I always tasted champagne in wine glasses” and added that when he started at Les Crayères he was “embarrassed” to serve champagne in flutes.
Jamesse consulted Gérard Liger-Belair, a physicist at the University of Reims, who has worked extensively in the science of champagne.
“When you see Gérard’s work, you understand why the ‘coupe’ is completely out-dated,” he said.
Gas chromatography showed that a coupe loses CO2 at least a third faster than a flute, so unless you drink very quickly, you lose the precious effervescence.
“I knew we could do much better,” said Jamesse. “I started looking but could not find the glass I wanted.”
He took his ideas to local glass manufacturer Lehmann and together they created an elongated glass, rounded in the middle and tapering towards the top. At its widest point, their Grand Champagne glass measures 88mm, and even the most modest of the series, the Initial, measures 72mm.
They discovered that the spherical shape of the Lehmann Jamesse glasses encourages vertical movement and “respects the role of the mousse” as bubbles carry aroma to the surface. The glasses allow each bubble to burst at the widest point of the “tulip” to free its flavours and express aromatic subtlety. This enhances champagne tasting not only with the aroma, but also the sight and sound of the bubbles which are all part of the experience.
The magic of the bubbles
Champagne is all about the bubbles and Dr Liger-Belair was interested to find out why strings of bubbles rise from certain points in the glass.
He discovered that it happens when microscopic fibres—left by a kitchen towel or often just an airborne particle—stick to the side, allowing molecules of dissolved carbon dioxide to coalesce and form bubbles. The finding is important for both champagne fans and the catering industry.
Sally Hillman always recommends you wash your champagne glasses by hand – to avoid breakage apart from anything else – but also to protect the bead, or string of effervescence.
Machine-washed glasses that have been vigorously cleansed and blown-dry upside down, could be so spotless that very few bubbles form. So just rinse your champagne glasses under warm water, drain upside down and when they’re dry, polish them very gently with a polishing cloth, being careful not to twist the glass against the stem as this may cause breakages.
Some glassmakers use lasers to etch a tiny crown of spots at the bottom of the glass, creating flaws to force the bubbles to form and rise in a particular way. This can be done more naturally by using through the shaping of the base of the glass. One of the defining features of a Jamesse Lehmann champagne tulip is its pointed base, perfectly designed to encourage a long and clear-cut effervescence and to allow the champagne the freedom to produce a natural bead.
Which glass to choose?
The Jamesse Lehmann collection is delicately made by hand, in both vintage and non-vintage styles. There is also a machine-made collection for more robust hospitality usage.Within the collection, there are different shapes of tulip glasses for different styles of champagne. The Lehmann Jamesse Grand Champagne 45 and the Lehmann Jamesse Premium 28.5 are both excellent all-rounders, while the Lehmann Jamesse Prestige Synergie 75 and the Lehmann Jamesse Grand Champagne 41 are both ideal for vintage champagnes and champagne rosé. The choice can seem overwhelming, so why not contact Sally Hillman for advice about the most suitable glassware for your needs?
Just remember, the tulip is not just a flower, it’s the only way to drink champagne!