There is wine, and then there is Champagne. Wine can be capped by screw tops, corks, synthetic corks, even bottle caps. Champagne is secured by a twisted wire cage affixed over a bulging cork—a medieval security system standing between you and a permanent eye patch. Increasingly, wine has playful, graphic labels and names like “Fat Bastard” or “You Are So Fine.” Champagne is dominated by foreign names you’re not sure how to pronounce—Moët, Veuve, Ruinart, Prévost—and labels adorned with family crests and calligraphy. The best glass for a wine depends on its age, composition, body, alcohol content. Champagne is always served in flutes.
Or is it?
In the past ten years, a change has been brewing, one that aligns Champagne more closely with the rest of the wine world. Instead of the flute—the iconic, slender stemmed glass synonymous with the sparkling wine—sommeliers and marketers alike are now recommending that we drink our Champagne from white wine glasses. You know, like a wine.
“As I recall, [the shift to a wine glass] was first suggested to me by the Champenois themselves. I think they recognized that one glass was called a wine glass and the other one wasn’t; it was called a flute,” says Levi Dalton, Eater NY wine editor and host of the I’ll Drink to That podcast. “They wanted their wines to be taken seriously as wines, which didn’t happen as much in America 10 years ago.”
This isn’t the first time the rules have been changed. For the first 300 years of its life, Champagne was served in coupes—the wide, flat glasses that have now taken up permanent residence in the craft cocktail scene. Though considered a complete failure by contemporary standards—the wide surface area allows effervescence to disappear quickly and the open mouth discourages any aroma development—coupes were well suited to sparkling Champagne in its early days, when aggressive perlage was considered uncouth. Up until the early 20th century, in fact, glasses were often accessorized with a small whisk or forked stirrer that could be used to speed the dissipation of the bubbles.
Of the many urban legends about Champagne, the (debunked) story that the coupe was modeled on one of Marie-Antoinette’s breasts may be the most pervasive. For centuries Champagne was the beverage of the French kings and those who wanted to emulate them; when it began to be exported, that aspirational reputation traveled right alongside it. In the 19th century, Laurent-Perrier ran ads in Britain that name-dropped the members of European nobility who drank its product; around the same time, Moët paid music hall star George Leybourne, who performed in the black-tie-wearing ladies’ man persona of “Champagne Charlie,” simply to be seen drinking their product.
The biggest statement of all may be the acknowledgment that the flute is not the best we can do. While its traditional shape is most effective at preserving Champagne’s bubbles, increasingly, the bubbles are only a small part of the whole. The character of Champagne is changing, and so is how we should drink it.
We have a handful of conglomerates, the grandes marques de Champagne, to thank for these marketing efforts. Of the top 10 largest producers of Champagne today, two are owned by Pernod Ricard (whose portfolio also includes Glenlivet, Absolut, Seagram’s and Jameson), one by Remy-Cointreau, and two by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the hulking Deceptacon of modern luxury. They are all 200-plus years old and have worked together from the start to protect their product’s high-end reputation.
As such, in North America Champagne has long been seen a symbol, not a beverage. It’s athletes celebrating under a rush of foam, ships being christened, wedding toasts and New Year’s Eves. Champagne is Biggie repping Cristal and Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr meeting in An Affair to Remember.
“At best,” says Peter Liem, wine critic and author of ChampagneGuide.net, “Champagne is served as an aperitif or at the beginning of a meal before you move on to ‘real’ wine.” Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate, takes it a step further: “If you order Champagne before dinner and it’s not a special occasion, I know you’re European.”
In the middle of the 20th century, as attitudes about class and status shifted from aspirational to populist, the flute—designed to preserve and showcase Champagne’s festive effervescence, rather than genteelly downplaying it—replaced the coupe as the glass of choice. Some flute makers even went so far as to create a rough spot at the very bottom of the glass to collect the bubbles and feed them up to the surface in one pinpointed stream. It was an objet d’art from birth.
“With Champagne flutes, because it is an aesthetic and a cultural object as much as it is a functional wine glass, oftentimes form trumps function,” says Liem. More than any other form of glassware, the Champagne flute has been designed and redesigned: The Museum of Modern Art sells an inside-out flute and a stemless flute; there are Swarovski crystal-encrusted flutes for weddings and customizable etched flutes to hand out as favors. Flutes have been corkscrewed, squared off, hand-painted, inverted—anything to make a statement.
But the biggest statement of all may be the acknowledgment that the flute is not the best we can do. While its traditional shape is most effective at preserving Champagne’s bubbles, increasingly, the bubbles are only a small part of the whole. The character of Champagne is changing, and so is how we should drink it.
If the grandes marques are the Goliath in this story, the farmers who actually grow the grapes they use are the David—and they’ve been fashioning their own slingshot the whole time. In recent decades, rather than selling their grapes to the big guys, as has been the tradition, a handful of Champagne growers have opted to make the wine themselves. Grower Champagne, as it’s known, follows an artisanal narrative that’s perfectly on trend with our current understanding of luxury. It’s farm-to-glass drinking, with temperamental individuals following passions over paychecks (it’s much more profitable for a Champagne grower to sell his grapes than to make wine with them).
“Today, the world of Champagne is more diverse than it’s ever been, and that makes it a much more sophisticated appellation than it was before,” says Liem. “That helps us as consumers to be able to treat Champagne much more like a real wine.”
There’s little question that white wine glasses allow for a fuller Champagne experience than flutes do. By belling out in the middle they allow the wine’s aromas to develop in contact with the air, while a taper at the mouth holds most of the carbonation in. As growers experiment with using riper grapes, encouraging bolder fruit flavors and placing a greater emphasis on terroir, a glass that allows room for all that complexity to come forth has suddenly become crucial.
Though the cultural saturation of Champagne in Europe should be a boon, it could end up hurting the wine in the long run. “The attitude there is ‘Why would you do something differently?’,” says Lepeltier. “You’ll never get a Belgian to change the glass they use.” Ironically, it may be in the U.S., where our relationship has long been mostly superficial, that Champagne will really get the chance to shine.