Champagne is a delicate, complex, expensive beverage deserving of special treatment. It even has its own glasses, designed to bring out the best of its fizz and aroma. But confusingly, there are two very different styles of glasses for serving Champagne: the low, bowl-shaped coupe, and the slender, tapered flute. Do they both bring out the best?
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Really, both shapes have advantages and disadvantages, and it all comes down to how Champagne behaves, because it is a dynamic drink that changes character in the glass.
Champagne is full of dissolved carbon dioxide. As soon as it’s opened and poured, that dissolved gas starts to turn into bubbles. The bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass (where they form) to the surface, where they burst, filling the air immediately above the champagne (called the headspace) with the wonderful aroma compounds that make champagne so fragrant.
In different glass shapes, that happens differently. In a flute, when a bubble forms at the bottom of the glass, it has to rise through several inches of Champagne to get to the surface. As it rises, a bubble gathers more and more carbon dioxide and aroma, becoming larger as it goes. Then, when it hits the surface of the wine, all of that is released. Because the top of the flute is quite narrow, the gas is concentrated in that headspace. When you stick your nose in the flute, to inhale or to take a sip, that concentration can irritate the nose and overwhelm your senses just when you’re poised to enjoy your drink.
A coupe, on the other hand, holds a wide and shallow pool of wine, so that a rising bubble travels much less distance, and is still quite tiny when it reaches the top. And a coupe has a lot of surface area on top of the liquid. When the little bubbles hit that surface, they readily disperse into the air. Gérard Liger-Belair, a French Champagne scientist who has studied this in great detail, says that the headspace above a coupe of Champagne contains about half the carbon dioxide that a flute’s headspace does, and that sniffing and sipping from a coupe is correspondingly much less irritating to the nose of the drinker. In fact, the coupe releases its aromatic vapors so readily that some tasters find that champagne served in a coupe has a less enjoyable flavor.
Liger-Belair recommends a compromise, a tulip-shaped glass with less height than a flute but more than a coupe, and a constriction at the top to keep in a certain amount of aroma. These glasses have grown in popularity since the 2004 publication of Liger-Belair’s book Uncorked, so they’re now widely available if you are shopping for glasses to maximize your Champagne imbibing.
For people who only drink Champagne a couple of celebratory times a year, though, it’s probably not worth shelling out for new stemware. A small white wine glass has similar height and constriction advantages as the tulip glass, and the tipple itself will make the occasion special.