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New Year's Eve: Champagne, an elixir of poets, packs a wallop

December 31, 2011 | 10:00 am

Champagne, the nose-tickling elixir of blossoming bubbles that has inspired poets to lyrical fancy -- "lily on liquid roses floating" -- also may be a more direct route to inebriation than its less elixir-like counterparts.

Joe Vinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Scranton in Ohio, once lived in the Champagne region of France, “so I drank a lot of Champagne, and I heard from French people that the bubbles in the alcohol ... make the alcohol absorb faster.”

So ... true or false?

Vinson said research supports the theory, showing a “more rapid and greater blood alcohol level” with bubbly than with non-bubbly bubbly -- “de-gassed Champagne” -- based on subjects’ attention span and reaction time.

It seems  the devil of the drink -- whether Champagne or sparkling wine -- is in its bubbles. (The word “Champagne” refers specifically to wine from the Champagne region of France, but most people use it as a generic term.)

“Champagne would be just another white wine without those tiny bubbles," says an American Chemical Society video that delves into the chemistry of the popular New Year’s drink.

More bottles of Champagne are poured at the holidays than at any other time of year, the ACS says.

“Energy, excitement, playfulness, celebration, these are things that Champagne taps into," Alex Day, co-owner of drinks consulting company Proprietors, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Food section.

Champagne’s bubbles “ascend the length of the glass in tiny trains,” the ACS says, dragging along “molecules of flavor and aroma, which explode out of the surface.”

Then there’s the “blossom” effect of Champagne: “When an exploding bubble deforms its neighbors, gorgeous flower-shaped structures blossom and disappear in the blink of an eye." Lovely.

Not so lovely are the ridiculous things you might do when you’ve had too much alcohol.

Another ACS video, on the chemistry of drunkenness, notes that low levels of alcohol “interfere” with inhibitions. “So things you might not do if you were fully in charge of your mind, you might tend to do under the influence of alcohol,” says chemistry professor Diane Bunch of the Catholic University of America in the video.

“But,” she adds, “Shakespeare said it all when he said that it provokes desire but it takes away from performance.”

Then there’s the next day’s headache. Do Champagne and its evil bubbles give you a worse hangover than other forms of alcohol? Vinson was unwilling to commit. Champagne and hangovers are more in the “soft science area,” he said.

According to the ACS, white wine may beat red wine -- for some people -- when it comes to reducing the risk of hangovers.

Some of us have a more intense reaction to the "congeners" (toxins that are byproducts of the fermentation process) in red wine than in white. It’s that reaction that contributes to the hangover. Dark liquors and red wine have more congeners than the clear or light stuff.

Alcohol also lowers the blood sugar, causes dehydration and stimulates secretion of stomach acid.

All of which can leave you feeling next-day icky.

But leave tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow. Today is New Year’s Eve and, if you plan to drink Champagne -- or sparkling wine -- don't overdo it.

Also, eat something beforehand. “If you have food in your stomach, that slows everything down,” Vinson said, simply “because of all that stuff that the alcohol has to wade through to get to the intestinal wall.”

Eating. That’s not difficult to do at the holidays.


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-- Amy Hubbard