A champagne bottle holds about six atmospheres of pressure, requiring heavy glass, a special cork and a wire capsule to restrain the wine. In 2008, Decanter magazine reported that a German scientist with nothing better to do shook a champagne bottle really hard before opening it and measured the cork's speed at about 25 mph. (It's a wonder there aren't more one-eyed athletes on championship teams.) The scientist also estimated that if you left the bottle out in the sun without shaking it, the cork could theoretically reach a speed of 62 mph once you nudged it loose.
This year, French scientist Gerard Liger-Belair, who leads a team of fizzologists at the University of Reims, published a paper in which he concluded that a glass of champagne would release about 1 million bubbles.
Assuming you don't drink it, that is.
His figure was much less than the estimate of 15 million bubbles popularly bandied about by various wine writers.
The point is, opening a bottle of champagne relieves pressure - both on the bottle and on the drinker. Those bubbles that mark life's celebrations are really mood-altering drugs. That's why sparkling wine, and here I include any bubbly, not just champagne, makes an ideal aperitif for any occasion. No sourpuss can resist its charms. Food tastes better when we're happy, and bubbles make us happy.
Yet Americans still consider sparkling wine to be for special occasions, when we're probably already happy. The vast majority of us purchase one or a few bottles a year, typically in December. Even Veuve Clicquot, the most popular champagne in U.S. markets, is subject to this seasonal bias.
"We notice a little peak in sales around Valentine's Day, then again around Mother's Day, but most sales are concentrated around the new year," Cyril Brun, Clicquot's chief winemaker, said during a recent visit to Washington. He was optimistic, though, that consumers are beginning to enjoy the wine for itself instead of for the occasion.
"When people are more into the product than the context, that's a big step forward," he said.
Of course there's plenty of good bubbly for those of us who are not on a champagne budget. Spanish cava is my favorite category for bargain bubbles. You've probably had a cava before: Freixenet Cordon Negro, in the ubiquitous black bottle, is a popular brand, if rather pedestrian, under $10. For something more interesting, try Jaume Serra Cristalino or Segura Viudas, both delicious for about $10. By spending just a few dollars more, say $15 to $20, you can find cava with real personality. My current favorites include the bright, fruity Tarrida Brut, made from organic grapes, and the fun Kila Cava, which is killer. Both are about $14.
Prosecco from northern Italy can set a positive mood as well, with its softer bubbles and light texture. And don't shy away from an Italian bubbly labeled "spumante," because many are quite good, such as the La Cappuccina Filos Brut, from the Veneto region in northeast Italy. Made from garganega grapes, it's essentially a sparkling soave and quite delicious for $16. France, outside its northeast province of Champagne, makes delicious bubblies called cremant.
Several American labels offer good value for the money: Gruet from New Mexico, Piper Sonoma and Scharffenberger from California, and Michelle from Washington state are good examples costing under $20.
So don't wait for a special occasion. Make one: a lousy day, a minor victory at the office, a tough commute home. That chilling bottle of bubbly might be just what's needed.