Carbonation and the pain of Champagne

Sparkling wine – or beer, or soda, or seltzer* – triggers an unmistakable set of sensations, addictive or repellent depending on your predilection. But is that sensation a taste? A physical sensation? Something else? Probably some combination of the above, though figuring all of that out is trickier than you might imagine.

First, the bubbles in sparkling wine are carbon dioxide, either the product of yeast fermenting a last little bit of sugar in the bottle or mechanical carbonation with a tank of pressurized gas. Carbon dioxide plus water makes carbonic acid: CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3 . Acids, by definition, are molecules with hydrogens which can and do pop on and off when dissolved in water. If the hydrogens tend to disassociate themselves easily, you’re dealing with a strong acid (e.g. hydrochloric or sulfuric) best used for cleaning glassware or dissolving an inconvenient corpse. If only a small number of hydrogens hop off at any one time, you’re dealing with a weak acid. Carbonic acid, needless to say, is a weak acid, or else seltzer water would be an industrial solvent rather than a cocktail mixer. Chemists were associating the perception of sourness with those free hydrogen ions back at the turn of the twentieth century, but they’re not sufficient to explain sourness alone, and twenty-first century chemists are still trying to work out the remainder. The ongoing search for a complete explanation of sourness is one of those excellent examples of how very simple daily phenomena can end up being unexpectedly complicated when scientists try to explain them in terms of chemistry and biology.

Second, the bubbles in sparkling wine are mechanical stimulation. If you stick your hand into a glass of sparkling water, you’ll feel the “prickle” of bubbles bursting along your skin, and your tongue and the interior of your mouth receives the same sensation. That’s not surprising.

A third component of how we sense carbonation is surprising, or at least it’s surprising to me as a carbonated beverage-lover. Carbonation appears to trigger nociceptors, the specialized receptors we have for sensing pain. Carbonation is, physiologically speaking, irritating.

Maybe it’s not surprising to find that Champagne belongs on the list of painful foods along with super-spicy cuisines and overly hot tea. Or, rather, a goodly number of people seem to find Champagne painful for numerous different reasons. Drinking Champagne and enjoying it is a social skill, but everyone seems to know at least someone who really doesn’t like the stuff. Some are folks who don’t enjoy wine or alcoholic beverages at all, and some are surely like me in liking sparkling wine but having mainstream Champagne sullied by thoughts of what other, more interesting wines could have been purchased for the same $40. Perhaps some of them are also troubled by unusually high sensitivity to the negative sides of carbonation. A recent study of how consumers perceive small differences in degree of sparkling wine carbonation attests that individual tasters have different thresholds for feeling – and maybe feeling discomfort from – carbonation. Occam’s razor still says that “Champagne”**-haters are more likely suffering from a combination of low-quality bubbly, ill-advisedly sweet food pairings, and excess consumption. But heck; the simplest answer isn’t always the correct one. Just look at the sensation of sparkling.

As for me, I’m strongly in the pro-carbonation camp. I also eat 100% unsweetened chocolate straight-up, take strong tea and coffee black, and eat bitter greens for breakfast all of which, I’m told, are rather painful suggestions to many people. Perhaps these statements are not unrelated?


For more on sparkling wine physics:

For more on Nobel prize-winning sparkling wine microbiology: and


*Or carbonated foods. This soup? Fermenting kimchi? Pop rocks?

**In quotes only because people who object to “Champagne” may be reacting to negative experiences of other non-Champagne sparkling wines and I’m not interested in picking a fight with the CIVC.

Will magnetic yeast make better Champagne?

UPDATE: Deborah Parker Wong has written a detailed discussion of magnetic yeast technology and its implications for the Champagne and sparkling wine industries for the September-October 2014 edition of Vineyard and Winery Management in which she makes it clear that I’m wrong about #3 below: at least some traditional producers are enthusiastic about rapidly making use of the new technology. The full text of Wong’s article is available for free via her website.

Wine Searcher ran a story this past week about new technology from the University of Ljubljana that speeds traditional sparkling wine processing times by magnetizing yeast cells. Magnetic nanoparticles affixed to the cells’ surface don’t interfere with fermentation and let winemakers literally and near-instantaeously pull the yeast into the neck of the bottle by applying a magnetic current. Since riddling — slowly inverting and rotating bottles to remove (unattractively cloudy) dead yeast after the secondary in-bottle fermentation responsible for effervescence-generation — traditionally takes a few months and a LOT of hands-on work, a 15-minute flip-a-switch solution looks pretty attractive. BUT:

Interesting fact #1 – This technology isn’t new, though applying it to the sparkling wine industry is. Bioengineers came up with magnetic yeast in 2009.

Interesting fact #2 – If actually adopted by the industry, magnetic yeast will be far from the only use of nanoparticles in food. Quite the contrary, which you know if you follow the American health and science news. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are common additives to everything from chewing gum and toothpaste to yogurt and soy milk, generally to the effect of making whateveritis whiter. Nanosilver particles are common both as agricultural pesticides and in antimicrobial coatings for household goods, and nanolipids and nanoproteins and assorted other nanostuff finds its way into all manner of food-related items. The consensus is that we don’t yet have a consensus on whether and to what degree ingesting nanoengineering is safe (a peer-reviewed take on that question here; a more accessible and more inflammatory story from Mother Earth News here). Logically, magnetic force should effectively pull all of the magnetic particles (made from magnetite, if the Ljubljana authors are using the same general strategy published in the 2009 paper) out of the wine, but nothing is perfect. If residual particles remain, drinking them might be a health risk, but it won’t be a unique one.

Interesting fact #3 – Alright; this one isn’t a fact. It’s a speculation based on fact. I speculate that we needn’t worry too much about magnetite in our celebratory libations. Champagne in particular and high-quality, methode champenoise sparkling wine in general, is not about fast. Exactly the contrary. Champagne legally has to spend at least 15 months in bottle and at least 12 months on the lees, and usually exceeds that by a year or two because age on the lees is vital to the flavor profile of high-quality sparkling. I reviewed some of those considerations in this article for Palate Press.

The problem with riddling isn’t the time per se so much as the labor: some poor guy has to spend his days jiggling bottles (and if champagne riddlers don’t have a high incidence of occupation-induced carpal tunnel syndrome, I suspect that it’s just going undiagnosed). The gyropalette solves that problem by loading a box full of bottles onto a modified forklift and letting the machine jiggle them for you. That bit of technology has been popular and successful, but it seems to me that it’s also a lot less expensive than magnetic yeast.

Think about it. Yeast reproduce in the bottle, a lot. So, every yeast cell used in inoculation needs to be loaded with magnetite particles to ensure that all of its many, many offspring has at least one magnetite particle.** Don’t even think about generating your own yeast innoculum. And that’s before we get to the magnetic set-up to actually pull down the yeast. I don’t know. Storing wine (and paying that poor guy) is expensive. Maybe this is a cost-effective solution. But if high-end producers aren’t going to be seduced by speed, and if lower-end producers are disinclined to spend more money on production technology, and if the wine industry in general tends to be stuck in the mud, I suspect we needn’t worry too much about drinking magnetite anytime soon.

** Maybe effective clarification doesn’t require that every yeast cell be magnetic, if the yeast tend to stick together (flocculate) and magnetic cells will help pull down their non-magnetic neighbors. Without reading the paper I don’t know, and since I can find neither the paper (maybe it’s not yet been published, or maybe it wasn’t published in English) nor the specific names of the researchers nor any other mention of the research on the University of Ljubljana’s website I have to speculate. It’s disturbing that I can’t find another source backing up the Wine-Searcher article (and I don’t personally know it’s author and can’t locate him via the usual tricks) but, then again, I don’t read Slovenian.