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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I've been told that Champagne is ruined if it is chilled and then returned to room temperature before chilling again and serving. Can you tell me what gets ruined and what the physics/chemistry of ruination are?
—Tauni S., Eugene, Ore.
"The Physics of Ruination"—I love it. Sounds like a book I'd like to read or a band I'd listen to. But be reassured: the process you describe will not "ruin" your sparkling wine. Nonetheless, your letter brings up a technical but interesting point. (Interesting to me, at least.)
Sparkling wine is a delicate thing—it's much more sensitive to light and temperature fluctuations than still wine. Why? Somewhere, my high school chemistry teacher is laughing at me for trying to explain this. Here goes:
Carbon dioxide is the gas that gives bubbly its bubbles. The solubility of carbon dioxide depends on the temperature of the liquid it is in. As the temperature goes up, the carbon dioxide is less soluble and wants to escape rapidly. If you've ever sprayed yourself by opening a warm can of soda or beer, you've experienced this phenomenon. If the liquid is well-chilled, the carbon dioxide solubility is greater, and it's harder for the gas to get out. A well-chilled glass of sparkling wine will have a gentle stream of tiny bubbles that last a long time as carbon dioxide is slowly released.
The change in solubility is not instant. It takes a while for all the carbon dioxide to recombine inside the wine. If you chill a warm bottle rapidly, a bunch of the carbon dioxide will still want to flee, even though the bottle might feel cold. If you'd like to preserve the carbonation (and not lose most of your wine in a gushing fountain of big, aggressive bubbles), try to not mess with the temperature of your sparkling wine, and chill it gradually. I recommend thirty minutes in a bucket of ice and water rather than five minutes in your freezer.
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