Everyone does the festive season in their own unique way. One thing almost universally enjoyed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve however (and for some of us, every day in between!), is a good bottle of bubbly. No other drink in the world is as synonymous with celebration as champagne – it is such an integral part of holiday traditions that 25% of all champagne bottles sold in America are purchased between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Whether you prefer your champagne on Christmas morning; with lunch; or to welcome in the New Year, it’s crucial that you get the most out of your fizz. We’ve previously highlighted the importance of correct storage, light protection, bottle size, and selecting the best glass in maximising your champagne experience. Recently we’ve been getting more and more questions about how far in advance champagne should be opened before drinking.
It is well known that some red wines can benefit from being opened in advance of drinking, in order to allow the wine time to ‘breathe’. Aeration can soften the flavours and release aromas (similar to swirling the wine in the glass), that improve the overall character of the wine. This is especially true for red wines as they contain lots of tannins, which can taste quite harsh if not given time to ‘breathe’ and soften.
However, less appreciated is the similarly positive impact that opening the bottle in advance can have on the character of champagne. We therefore asked a few of the experts – i.e. the people who actually make the stuff – to get their opinion in the matter.
We put the question to new Piper-Heidsieck cellar master Émilien Boutillat, who told us he likes to open a bottle and taste it straight away. “I think, ‘okay fine, it’s big’, wait a bit and then come back. The wine will warm up and become more oxidative… I love it. I like to see wine change in my glass, to ask guests, ‘can you feel it, it’s different’,” he told us. Although Boutillat likes to taste his champagne immediately, he does so in acknowledgment that the experience will change, and improve, over time (as opposed to actually ‘preferring’ his champagne just after opening).
Perhaps the biggest advocate of opening champagne well advance of drinking is the much-admired Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. At a recent tasting in Reims, he revealed that he opens bottles two hours before guests arrive, in order to showcase their true essence. For champagne, he explained, it is less to do with tannins and more an issue of effervescence and oxidation. The bubbles in champagne can trick the palate into thinking the liquid is drier and more acidic – thus, allowing the bubbles time to settle and the champagne time to open up will help reveal its true character.
When conducting tastings at The Finest Bubble, we typically open bottles around two hours before the intended drinking time, tasting just a small sample upon opening to insure the absence of any faults. Our advice for your Christmas fizz: open bottles at least an hour before drinking. Allow longer for prestige cuvées, as their enhanced complexity and development can take longer to unravel.