Dr. Vinny’s Valentine's Day Tips: Bubbly Basics and Beyond

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

I may not be as wise in the ways of love as I am in the ways of wine, but with Valentine’s Day coming up, I can certainly help you impress your date.

Here's some of my most important advice for romance, and sparkling wine in particular. I get asked a lot of bubbly questions throughout the year, so I’ve compiled some of the most popular questions from my archives. You might also want to brush up on the Bubbly Basics so you can dazzle your valentine with your sparkling knowledge along with your sparkling conversation.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What kind of wine is recommended on a first date?

—Robert N., South Africa

Dear Robert,

If you’re going out to have a glass of wine on a first date, I’m hoping you’ll let your date order whatever he or she likes. If that’s not the case, and you’re picking out the wine, find out what their favorite wine is, and order that! Otherwise, assuming there’s no need to pair a wine with any particular food or scenario, I vote for bubbly. It goes with everything, is romantic and celebratory, and those bubbles are very refreshing in case you get some first date jitters.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What’s the best way to quickly chill a bottle of bubbly?

—Danielle, New York

Dear Danielle,

You might be surprised, but it’s not the freezer. Thanks to physics—namely thermal conductivity here—a bottle of bubbly will chill down much faster in cold water than cold air.

Find a container that you can properly submerge most of a bottle of bubbly in. A sink can work in a pinch, too. Surround it with ice and water and dump a bunch of salt in there, too. The salt will reduce the freezing point of water, magically allowing it to get even colder. I’ve heard you can add as much as a cup of salt for every gallon of water, but I find that if I add more than a few tablespoons of salt it has trouble dissolving.

To help move the process along, you can also spin the bottle around, to maximize the contact of the liquid inside with the increasingly chilled down bottle. I wouldn’t give it to vigorous a swirl unless you’re opening the bottle in a locker room after winning the pennant.

I’d give this salty ice bath, gentle rotation process at least 15 minutes before trying to open the bottle.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

I always get so nervous opening a bottle of sparkling wine. Any tips?

—Sue, Vallejo, Calif.

Dear Sue,

The most important thing about opening a bottle of bubbly is to start with a really cold bottle. The colder the bottle, the less likely the cork will jump out, and the less fizzy and messy it will be. Likewise, try to not shake it up too much to tempt the bubbles to spurt out.

You’ll typically have to remove the foil capsule first, and there’s often a handy pull-tab to help you with that. Then you’re facing what’s called the “cage”—the wire contraption that holds the cork in place. Several (usually six) twists counterclockwise of the round part will loosen the cage. You don’t have to remove the cage, just put your thumb on top.

If your bottle is warm or has been agitated, your cork might pop out at this point, so make sure you are always pointing the cork away from anyone’s face, including your own. At this point I like to grab a napkin and use it for traction, as well as to protect my hand from any excited bubbles. They say it’s best to grab and hold on to the cork and twist the bottle, but I find that’s overly simple of an explanation—there’s often a little bit of wiggling of the cork, too.

As much fun as it might be to watch the cork go flying or encourage the loudest of pops when the cork is removed, it’s both impractical (you might lose some bubbly that way) and not the “proper” way, if you care about that sort of thing. Ideally the bottle should sigh as the cork is removed, rather than "pop." Once the cork starts to get loose, I find myself pushing back on it so it doesn’t go flying, ideally letting the air out of one side and not the whole cork at once.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What does “brut” mean in terms of Champagne?

—Deborah H., Chicago

Dear Deborah,

“Brut” is one of my favorite words when it comes to sparkling wine, as it refers to the driest category of bubblies, and my mouth is watering just thinking of it. After brut, in ascending order of sweetness, are extra-dry (or extra sec), sec, demi-sec and doux.

Brut is sometimes broken down further into “extra brut” and “brut natural,” in which case “natural” is the driest of the dry, indicating that no sugar at all has been added, referring to dosage, or the addition of sweetened wine or spirit after the sediment is disgorged.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is the best way to store fine Champagne?

—Diana K., Folsom, Calif.

Dear Diana,

Fine or not, bubbly should be stored the same way all wine should be stored: away from light, heat, vibration and temperature fluctuation. If you have a cooling unit, keep it at 55° F, with 70 percent humidity. If not, find a relatively secure spot, maybe in the corner of a closet. You’ll need to chill the bubbly down before serving, and the fastest way to do that is in an ice bath.

There are a couple of caveats about sparkling wine storage. Typically, I always recommend storing wine bottles on their sides to keep the corks damp. This step isn’t necessary for sparkling wines—it stays pretty humid inside the bottle with all the carbonation in there.

Also, Champagne and other bubblies are extremely sensitive to light, which is why they’re typically in such dark bottles, to protect the wine from UV rays. Keep that in mind when picking a storage spot.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can you please offer some advice on how long Champagne can be stored and still be OK to drink? I have some bottles that could be as old as 5 years. They have been kept in a cool, dry environment throughout.

—Chris, United Kingdom

Dear Chris,

I have a feeling your bubbly will be fine, since it’s been stored in a cool place. As I’ve written before, Champagne and other bubblies can really age well, especially the better ones. After a while, the carbonation starts to fade, the colors darken and the fresh fruit flavors evolve into toasty, nutty ones. But those changes would typically take place closer to the 10-year mark.

—Dr. Vinny

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.

Dear Tauni,

"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 wants 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 30 minutes in a bucket of ice and water.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What's with the seemingly new idea of drinking Champagne in a standard wineglass versus a flute? I've been seeing and hearing more and more about this. Are we looking at another screw cap versus cork debate?

—Don S., Naperville, Ill.

Dear Don,

It’s acceptable—and preferred by some—to serve sparkling wines in a regular white-wineglass. I think that how many and what types of wineglasses you invest in depends a lot on how much and what kinds of wine you drink. There are some really good all-purpose wineglasses that I use daily, then I have specialty red ones that are bigger that I bring out when I have company, and since I drink a lot of bubbly, I also have Champagne flutes. I don’t have many, so sometimes at a dinner party I’ll serve bubbly in a regular wineglass.

I like flutes because they feel festive to me. I believe the narrow opening helps prevent the bubbles from escaping too rapidly, and it’s fun to watch the bubbles rise through the chimney to the surface. The bad thing about a flute is that it’s difficult to stick your nose in the glass to take in the wine’s aromatics. (And some of the best sparkling wines really deserve to have their aromatics enjoyed.) If you’re looking for a new set of glasses, keep an eye out for tulip-shaped bubbly glasses that are like a hybrid between a small wineglass and a flute.

—Dr. Vinny

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