Which glass should I use to taste Champagne?
Excerpts from an interview with Clément Pierlot, Cellar Master of Pommery Champagne.
(This post was edited by Word Factor. Click here for more information)
A French version of this article was published on Le Petit Journal. click here.
It was an unexpected and happy movement. I brushed aside two glasses standing on a coffee table. They were wider in the middle and beveled down, yet their shape did not matter anymore. All that remained on the ground were shards of broken glass.
These two glasses were a gift, two champagne glasses that had nothing in common with the ones I used for my friends: six “tulip” glasses made of crystal, also known as flutes. Thin, elongated, fragile, and unique with reliefs of light on a stand, my flutes have a formal spot in my home.
I therefore could not care less about the two broken glasses, yet I was doubting: “Am I serving champagne with the proper glasses when I use the flutes?”
I asked the question to the Chef de Cave—the winemaker—of Pommery Champagne, Clément Pierlot, while interviewing him during an online tasting dinner in June 2020 organized by the French Institute-Alliance Française, Tastings and Vranken-Pommery America:
Pierlot’s answer was a resounding ‘no.’
“It’s very simple,” he said. “If the glass is too tight, the champagne will taste tight; if the glass is too flat, the champagne will taste flat.”
I had to learn everything all over again.
I remember the famous shallow cups—the ‘coupes’—from my teenage years. A true craftsman’s work, there were meticulously arranged in a cupboard. My parents used to take them out every time they entertained friends and family. Pomp and circumstance. They placed the cups on an old wooden and marquetry tray, so wide that I had to open my arms as wide as possible to reach each silver handle and carry it from the kitchen to the living room. I would then take the bottle by its bottom, as I had been taught, and slowly let the champagne slide into these outstanding crystal glasses. I observed, listened, and became impatient. The bubbles sang and walked on the surface, pure magic, yet they also quickly disappeared. I had to bring my arm to my lips while bending in half in search of a necessary balance to keep from spilling the precious liquid on the carpet.
The champagne cup has its own history and legend, attributed to Madam de Pompadour. An influential advisor and the official mistress of Louis XV for a few years, the Marquise loved this wine. Champagne flowed decadently at the Court in Versailles, and the wine-cup used to drink the wine was allegedly molded on her left breast.
Possibly more elegant, the tulip-like glass appears in the 1930s. With a slim and tight shape, this glass holds more bubbles, the essential element of Champagne flavors and fragrances; it is also fun.
If glasses have adapted to tastes, Champagne has also evolved with times.
The greatest Champagne revolution occurs precisely under the leadership of Jeanne Louise Alexandrine Pommery. When her husband Louis Pommery died in 1850, she takes over one of the most beautiful brands in the making.
Less than a quarter of a century later, she innovates and surprises the world of vineyards and gastronomy, long male-dominated, by creating Champagne Brut. Before Louise Pommery, explains Pierlot, “champagne was a very sweet wine with 150 grams of sugar per bottle.” The coupe is then the perfect glass as it allows some of the sugar to evaporate. Louise Pommery decides to transform this too sweet wine into a drier, almost natural one, after listening to her demanding English clientele. She worked with cellar masters to transform the very essence of Champagne. She selectively picks the grapes directly from the vines and assumes all winemaker risks by deciding exactly when to harvest the fruit. “The role of sugar was to mask the acidity of the champagne,” and thus, of grapes too young to be picked. “It was essential to control the time of harvest and work the vines to improve the maturity of the grapes,” adds the estate’s current winemaker.
This year’s harvest came in particularly early in the Champagne region—it began in some vineyards on August 17. Specialists speak of an exceptional harvest, the third of a “trilogy” after the two exceptional 2018 and 2019 seasons, the promise of great wines to be tasted later.
Patience is key to obtain a great Champagne. Controlling the moment of the harvest is not enough. Louise Pommery and her winemakers needed space to age the wine and bring it into both “roundness and elegance.” She had a castle-like domain built on a huge 123-acre estate. In the basement, once the source of the stones used to build Reims and the surrounding villages, she had endless galleries built, 18 kilometers of chalk pits, “les crayères.”
The basement temperature is ideal, and the space is large enough to store hundreds of Champagne barrels and bottles to let them rest while waiting for the perfect tasting time. “I go up and down 116 steps every day,” says Pierlot, to reach this world buried 30 meters below the ground.
Only 40 years old, Pierlot is the tenth Chef de Cave of Pommery. An oenologist specialized in agronomy, he sees himself as “a type of guardian of the temple and supervises all stages of the cuvée creations, from pruning the vines to marketing a bottle of champagne.” Pierlot managed the Vranken-Pommery Monopole group vineyards for 15 years. His passion for the terroir, his attachment to responsible viticulture, and the confidence of the founding President of the wine and champagne group Paul-François Vranken opened the ultimate door for him to fill a position that allows him to sign off on the champagnes.
Every season has a typical day, and every day has its share of both vineyard visits and tastings (two per day with an average of about 50 glasses) and of work with its team of about 60 winemakers, oenologists, and agricultural engineers.
“I wanted a team of men and women expressing the diversity of the champagne profession. I wanted a strong and consistent team because tasting is not an exact science,” Pierlot says.
The result is a lineage of varied champagnes, from Pommery Royal, “the brand’s flagship product” at the bottom of the pyramid to Cuvée Louise at the top, and multiple wines in between. The Pommery Blanc de Blanc Apanage—the 2017 cuvée is the first controlled by Pierlot—and is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes, one of the three main grape varieties in the Champagne region along with Pinot Noir and Meunier. Its “Spring aromas, white flowers, jasmine, and citrus fruits” make this the perfect gastronomic Champagne, especially when served with fish.
I am definitely ready for a Blanc de Blanc, a wine for a festive dinner—or a Cuvée Louise (my favorite), a wine for a romantic dinner.
But the question remains: how to pay tribute to this terroir, to the climate of Champagne, to the hands of winemakers, to the noses of oenologists, and at the multiple stages of the wine-making process itself—pressing, fermentation, blending, maturation, rotating, disgorgement, and dosage?
Let’s forget about the tulip and cup glasses. Never mind the charm and fantasy of the breast of one of the most famous women of Versailles.
“We need a glass wide enough to watch the bubbles” dance, a standing glass, narrow at the bottom, generous and wide in the middle to let the wine breathe, and slightly narrowed at the top to keep the bubbles in.
For a vintage of the level of a Cuvée Louise (this would be the same for a Dom Pérignon or a Krug Grande Cuvée), Clément Pierlot suggests an even wider glass at the bottom, a white wine glass.
For a summery champagne, a sweeter sparkling wine perfect to create ‘piscines’ (ice and champagne), the glass should even be bigger and rounder to allow the wine and the ice cubes to blossom together.
The idea is simply to make the Champagne happy, to give it the space it needs to express its complexity, its history, and all of its aromas.
I definitely should never have broken those two glasses.