Order a glass of Champagne (or sparkling wine from anywhere else) these days and you will probably notice that the elongated, bubble-accentuating flute has been swapped for a larger, wider-mouthed white wine glass. Long a totem of parties and good times, the flute is on the outs. But why?
There have been a few iterations of Champagne vessels throughout history. Although the story usually goes that the flute usurped the broad, shallow coupe, beloved by flappers and Golden Age wannabes, the truth is that some version of a tall, narrow glass has been around for a long time, maybe even as far back as the 17th century.
The flute’s heyday, however, didn’t come until much later. “In the latter half of the 20th century, the attitude toward Champagne changed,” says Peter Liem, one of the world’s leading experts on the region and author of the book Champagne. “After the 1960s, people started to treat [it] as something other than wine,” noting that he’s often heard tales from retailers about customers who didn’t know that Champagne is actually wine. This shift ran parallel to a massive increase in Champagne production and some supreme marketing efforts from the larger houses, like Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, that solidified Champagne’s role in celebrations, with a tailor-made glass that would show off its best visual asset: the bubbles.
While the bubbles undoubtedly looked nice, the glass negated the aromas and flavors of the Champagne, as the small opening and straight-sided shape prevent any oxygen from getting in. This was mostly fine for what Liem describes as the almost “dilute,” light and high-acid Champagnes of the era, but not the softer, high-dosage wines that begin to dominate the style in the ’80s and ’90s or the grower Champagnes that led the conversation in the aughts by placing an emphasis on nuanced vineyard expression, à la Burgundy. “Really only in the last 20 years has Champagne been discussed as a terroir-based wine,” says Liem.
In short, Champagne went back to being wine again. Not only were growers taking specific parcels into consideration, but the style of wines was entirely different—richer and more complex, often thanks to harvesting at lower yields, not to mention the use of barrels and extended lees aging. These wines needed air for all the sensory things we love about wine to surface. Aurélien Laherte, vigneron at Champagne’s Laherte Frères, says it's his generation (and maybe a bit of his parents’) that realized that Champagne is best from the same glass used for Chablis or a great chenin blanc. “Yes, Champagne is a good aperitif, but it’s also for lunch and through the cheese course,” he says.
The switch to using white wine glasses was largely driven by the Champenois, says Liem, though sommeliers became quick adopters. Putting these wines into a flute is like “squeezing someone into a corset,” says Aldo Sohm, wine director of Le Bernardin and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York. He’s been pouring Champagne in white wine glasses since the mid-2000s.
As the dialogue between sommeliers and winemakers deepened, so did the practice of incorporating larger glasses into Champagne service. During one of my first visits to Laura Fiorvanti’s wine bar Corkbuzz, in 2011, she poured a glass of Champagne for me in what today would be a modest white wine glass. A year later, over lunch with Morgane Fleury of Fleury and Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette et Sorbée at the now-closed Del Posto, the numerous oversized glasses for the tasting took up so much real estate on the table that there was hardly room for plates. This predilection for larger glasses, beginning with the Champenois and then trickling down through fine dining via top-tier sommeliers, eventually made its way to the casual restaurant, natural wine bar and local tavern, where it’s no longer rare that nary a flute can be found behind the bar.
Back at Le Bernardin, Sohm says he still offers flutes to his guests, if they want—and some haven’t quite come around to the idea of it any other way. “You can use your grandfather’s stereo and it’s great for nostalgia,” he says. “But if you want to really hear the music, you need something much better.”