Champagne — You Go to My Head!

Update:  It turns out there may be something to getting more of a buzz from champagne after all.  Check out one of our posts with newer information.  But you still shouldn’t drink champagne (or any other alcohol on an empty stomach…


Ah, the woozy feeling!  You’ve had a glass of champagne and you feel good and buzzed – more buzzed than if you’d had wine, or even a shot of whiskey.  Cole Porter may get no kick from champagne, but your head is floating, just like the little bubbles rising in the glass.  Is it really true – is champagne more intoxicating than still wine?  Or is it just the perennial excuse for bad behavior at weddings?

Anecdotes abound, at least from our boozy friends!  But it seems counterintuitive.  Champagne has less alcohol than most wines.  Still wines generally contain at least 13% alcohol by volume, while champagne and other sparkling wines hover around 12%.  So it isn’t more alcohol causing the problem.  Naturally, we have a few other explanations 😉

The first is that you could be inhaling a bit of alcohol from those bubbles that tickle your nose.  The alcohol in champagne clings to the surface of the bubbles as they rise.  (It all has to do with lowering surface tension, which we mentioned in our discussion of legs in wine.)  So the liquid film around the bubbles contains more alcohol than the champagne surrounding them.  The bubbles break when they reach the surface, releasing a little spray that you can sometimes see in the glass, especially when it’s first poured.  So if your nose is in the right place (still attached to your face, obviously) you could inhale alcohol, which is a much quicker way of getting it into your bloodstream than through your stomach.  Those wide-rimmed, old-fashioned champagne glasses would be the perfect vehicle for a snort.

But what if you’re drinking from an oh-so-elegant narrow flute and can’t get your nose in there?  In that case, it might be because you’re drinking more alcohol with your first sips than you thought.  When those bubbles break, they release their films onto the liquid surface.  If you’ve been poured a glass of champagne and waited a minute or two to sip it (like before a toast), then the liquid in the top of the glass could contain more alcohol than lower down.  Your first couple of sips (or guzzles) would then have a higher concentration of alcohol.  Before you know it, you’re hammered, even if you don’t drink any more of it.

The third reason is much more prosaic, which means it’s likely truer as well:  people tend to drink champagne on an empty stomach, which of course makes them get tipsy more quickly.  Unfortunately, bridal toasts usually come after the food at weddings, which shoots down using this excuse for whatever it is you’ll need to apologize for.

No matter which explanation you choose, we’ve got the perfect apology mechanism this week – a dessert that contains champagne!  The recipe comes from Christianne Mante, who is married to first vine’s new champagne producer, Bernard Mante.  We’re excited to be the first U.S. importer of Bernard’s champagne, and it’s fabulous.  Champagne is less expensive in France than here, so it’s often used in cooking.  The combination of acidity and depth of flavor make it a fascinating ingredient.  This recipe uses just a bit of champagne, which means you can have your guests (and apology recipients) in the kitchen for a toast with the rest of the bottle while you impress them with your cooking skills.  The champagne is part of a zabaglione, which is a sort of pudding made by whisking egg yolks, champagne, and sugar over simmering water until it thickens.  This gives everyone a chance to help out and take turns whisking.  The zabaglione is spooned over a mixture of fruit, juice or liqueur, vanilla, and sugar, and then lightly browned under the broiler.  You can use raw fresh fruit or cook it a little first.  We’ve adapted the dish for the fall crop of apples.  The traditional recipe uses Marc du Champagne, a brandy made from the leftovers of champagne production.  We can’t get that over here, but you can use grappa if you have it, or apple cider, or hard cider, or a mixture of any and all.   Of course, we recommend using Bernard Mante champagne – there’s the traditional Brut, the Extra-Brut, which is drier, and the Brut Grande Reserve, truly the most elegant.  Whatever you choose, behave yourself!

Bon Appetit!

ps — Thanks to Josh for the nice post about first vine.  Check out Two Helmets and Agave, a blog about food and life in DC!

Fall Apple “Gratin” with Champagne Zabaglione
Serves 6

Two and a half pounds of fruit
–        around 7 medium apples, or
–        4-5 apples plus a) two sliced, peeled small bananas or oranges, or b) a 12-ounce bag of thawed frozen unsweetened peaches, raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries (in summer you can of course use fresh instead)
1 cup minus one tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Three-quarters cup apple cider (hard cider works too, or a mixture of grappa and cider)
Two-thirds cup champagne
8 egg yolks
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (optional)

Wash, peel, and thinly slice the apples and put them in a bowl.  Add the sliced bananas, oranges, or thawed frozen fruit if you’re using them.  Gently stir in 3 tablespoons of sugar, the vanilla extract, and the apple cider.  Set aside while you make the zabaglione.

Place a rack about 6 inches under the broiler, and preheat the broiler to high (if your oven door has to be open when the broiler is on, wait until after making the zabaglione to heat the broiler).  Put a couple of inches of water in a large pot and bring it to a simmer.  Whisk the egg yolks, the rest of the sugar, and the champagne in a heatproof bowl large enough to sit over the simmering water without touching the water.  Everything should be well mixed and a little lighter in color.  Sit the bowl over the pot of water and continue to whisk until the zabaglione mixture thickens.  You’ll know it’s done when you see ribbons of zabaglione fall off the whisk and slowly dissolve in the rest of it.  Keep the mixture moving so you don’t scramble the yolks (you can use your handheld electric mixer for this instead of a whisk, but we know you’ve always dreamed of having massive forearms like Jacques Pepin, so here’s your chance).  Take the zabaglione off the pot and set it aside.

Divide the fruit and liquid from the fruit bowl into six gratin dishes, or put it all into an 8 x 8-inch or 9 x 9-inch glass baking dish.  Set the dish(es) on a rimmed baking sheet.  Spread the zabaglione over the fruit and put everything under the broiler until it’s browned on the edges – a few minutes at most (watch it carefully).  Serve immediately with whipped cream or ice cream, if you’d like them.

Variation:  if you’d like to have a lightly-cooked fruit gratin, put the fruit (except for the bananas), cider, vanilla, and 3 tablespoons of sugar in a large saucepan.  Stir in 2 teaspoons of cornstarch until smooth, then bring the mixture to a boil and cook for about 3-5 minutes.  Stir in the bananas just before assembling the dish.

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