Are champagne flutes a thing of the past?
And does the question conceal a different challenge for Champagne?
If you go back far enough in history it seems that, even as long ago as the late 17th century when Champagne first appeared on the scene, there was a variety of shapes and sizes of glass to choose from. Short and stubby, tall and narrow, clear glass and opaque glass (that was common before riddling and disgorging had been perfected and champagne was often a bit murky). You could find them all.
Sometime later, perhaps around the time of Louis XVI, although some say rather earlier, the coupe glass made an appearance and, in one variation or another, the coupe remained popular through Victorian times, to the roaring 20s, on into the Hollywood era of the 1950s and even beyond.
Perhaps it’s because of the associations with those, apparently, glamourous times in the past that the coupe glass has a certain nostalgia attached to it: there’s nothing to match coupe glasses for building a champagne pyramid and to this day the coupe is still regarded as the perfect glass for many cocktails. You only have to look at the Moet Golden Hour glass used at this year’s Golden Globe awards.
The criticism often levelled at coupe glasses is that the aromas dissipate before they can be really appreciated and that the effervescence dies away too quickly. The first part is certainly correct – the aromas spread out sideways rather than being focussed upwards towards the nose, but the part about the bubbles dying away too quickly always seems irrelevant to me because the bubbles in Champagne persist for far longer than it takes an average person to finish the glass anyway.
Be that as it may, by the time the 1970s arrived the coupe was falling out of favour and being replaced by the tall, elegant, longer-stemmed flute. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but an intriguing one, that the real boom in Champagne sales, 1960 – 2000, coincided with the popularity of the flute glass). Anyway, one might have expected the popularity of the flute to be unchallenged for many a year yet, but recently the preeminent position of the flute is coming under threat.
These days there is a growing body of opinion, especially amongst more practiced champagne drinkers, that holds that flutes are too tall and narrow to appreciate the full complexity of champagne. They’re just not wide enough to swirl the wine and release the aromas and if you do try to swirl the champagne around in a flute you’ll probably slop it inelegantly over the sides and over your hand too.
The answer, according to this side of the debate, is to go for a much larger, rounder glass, more akin to the type of glass you’d use to serve still white or red wine, and a plethora of variations on this theme are being put forward as the perfect solution by wine writers, glass manufacturers, sommeliers and commentators of all sorts. Some of the leading Champagne houses, including Veuve Clicquot are advocating larger glasses so that you can add ice cubes to your champagne.
However, when we take a closer look at this trend and ask who is it that is calling for the flute to be done away with and why, it reveals a sort of identity crisis that Champagne has perhaps got itself into and which needs very careful handling by those who influence the image and reputation of Champagne.
As far back as anyone can remember Champagne has always been synonymous with celebration.
It’s the ‘good time’ drink par excellence.
It’s the almost obligatory accompaniment to many of life’s most emotional moments and if it’s more expensive than most other wines, what the heck! This is a special occasion that warrants a little extravagance.
Whether this imagery came about by design, or by accident, it’s sheer marketing gold and it has stood Champagne in good stead for centuries. So much so, in fact, that Champagne has come to be seen as something apart from other wines. You only have to look at the headings in any wines list: there are wines in one section and then there are Champagnes in a separate section.
However, over the past 20 years or so, many champagne houses have been at pains to present Champagne in a rather more ‘serious’ light and to emphasise its qualities as a gastronomic wine to be matched with a wide variety of foods and served during, and perhaps even throughout, a meal.
One wonders why this shift in positioning was deemed necessary.
Was it because the market for Champagne as a celebratory drink was declining and a new niche had to be found?
Was it perhaps out of a feeling of inferiority versus the great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines?
Was it just out of a desire to keep to increasing sales by finding new Champagne drinking occasions?
Who knows? However, it is not far-fetched to conclude that the tendency to drink champagne out of larger, rounder glasses stems directly from the desire to present Champagne as a wine to serve with food and the equal of any other great wine.
The next question then is how many people actually drink champagne with a meal?
Actually, I have to hold my hand up here because I entirely agree that Champagne is fabulous served with a meal and that it is far more than just a wine to go with aperitifs. Champagne can match sublimely with a whole host of dishes from start to finish of any meal. BUT, and it’s a big but, I don’t think that I am representative of the vast majority of Champagne drinkers and I would venture to suggest that wine writers and sommeliers and many of those advocating the adoption of larger glasses and the abandonment of the flute are not typical champagne drinkers either.
I don’t think that many people do drink Champagne with a meal and, what’s more, I doubt that the majority of Champagne drinkers ever will, even if bombarded with marketing about the suitability of Champagne as an accompaniment to food.
It’s my view that most people still see Champagne as an aperitif drink to start off an event and to provide the ‘feel good factor’ to make them feel special. Most Champagne drinkers are not really interested in lingering over the complexities of the aromas, or the nuances of the colour, so the issue of whether they have a flute glass or a wider glass is irrelevant to most of them.
The danger for the imagery and appeal of Champagne, is that by promoting Champagne as a fine wine for mealtimes, the celebratory image built up over so many years is in some way diluted.
This may be unlikely, I admit, but the possibility exists.
The most sensible outcome would seem therefore to let everyone make up their own mind about which glass they prefer and what suits the occasion when the Champagne will be served. This means allowing a role for a whole range of glasses from coupe, to flute, to a wider more wine-style glass
This also means avoiding telling anyone that they ‘should’ be using this type of glass or the other type of glass, or that it’s ‘wrong’ to use one type or another.
And last, just to throw another cat amongst the pigeons, it’s my guess that the coupe glass will make a comeback before the wider wine-style glasses catch on with the general public.
You read it here first. I wonder if I will have to eat my words one day.