Does Good Quality Champagne Avoid Hangover?
When I was driving around Champagne three years ago, I was lucky enough to visit a few Champagne Houses and meet some interesting producers there. One of the things I heard on more than one occasion, which stuck in my mind, was that good quality champagnes do not cause hangover.
I’d never given this too much thought, dismissing it as pure marketing. Whether an urban myth or just excellent PR, when I heard from James Lacey of Mission to invite me for an afternoon of Polo at the Veuve Cliquot Gold Cup event in Cowdray Park, I thought my moment had finally come to put this theory to the test (the things I will do for this blog!).
The event was on a gloriously hot English summer's day - an elegant and well-heeled crowd (many of whom arrived by helicopter) lounged around the grand Veuve Cliquot marquee - the Champagne was chilled and free flowing and the most delicious canapés were served by the beautiful staff.
The deep-fried quail eggs in truffled parmesan breadcrumbs were particularly fine as were the creamed feta cheese in watermelon cases.
High tea was also served later in the day with Veuve Cliquot Rosé Champagne in glass tea cups, with cucumber sandwiches, pastries and cakes galore. This is not a kind of event I would normally attend, but I greatly enjoyed my day at Cowdray and the opportunity to put the hangover theory to the test.
Having now done a bit of research on this, I found no scientific studies carried out on the subject but came across a plethora of contradictory articles. The ones supporting the theory, seem to base their rationale on either the “Degorgement” stage of the “Methode Champenoise”, or the low use of added Sulphites (SO2) in Champagne (a type of preservative which in wines is used as an anti-oxidant), whilst others focus on the concept of "natural wines".
The Methode Champenoise
The “Method Champenoise” is fascinating and consists of 5 different stages (for a brief explanation, see footnote*). The step which some argue is closely associated with the prevention of hangover from Champagne is called "Degorgement”.
In this phase, the added yeast is encouraged to move downwards towards the cork where it settles. To remove the big lump of yeast and other impurities from the wine, the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the pressure of the fizz pushes the ice out with the yeast encased in it when the bottle is unsealed.
Use of Sulphites in Champagne
All wines contain sulphur dioxide in various forms, and these are collectively known as sulphites. Even in completely unsulphured wines (when sulphur is not added), it is still present at concentrations of up to 1o mg per litre (mg/l) and is a natural result of the fermentation process that turns grape juice into alcohol.
High levels of SO2 have been proven to cause allergic reactions in those sensitive to it, and are believed to be closely associated with other health problems including hangover. This is possibly because sulphites destroy thiamine (vitamin B1) and are thought to destroy folic acid. While red wines require no added SO2 (they naturally contain anti-oxidants from the grapes’ skin), white wines including Champagne, are given larger doses as they are more prone to oxidation.
The level of SO2 in Veuve Cliquot Champagnes is between 40 and 55 mg/l. By law, the maximum level of SO2 for the “High Quality Sparkling Wine” category (a category defined by French regulations which includes Champagne) is 185 mg/l. Veuve Cliquot has therefore very low levels of SO2 in their Champagnes which might help avoiding the onslaught of hangover.
It would be great to be able to blame sulphites for my self-inflicted woes but if anything it has made me look at “natural wines” in a different light. Natural wine is made in small quantities, on low-yielding vineyards, with handpicked organic grapes. The wine is then made without added sugars or foreign yeasts, and often without any sulphur dioxide either. It is boutique viticulture and has a price tag (70% of all natural wine produced in France is sold to Japan). Terroirs (review here), one of my favourite wine bars in London, sells some of these natural wines.
The scientific evidence to support the argument that sulphites are responsible for hangovers is flimsy however. Dr Jamie Goode, the author of Wine Science, asserts:
“The standard message is that some asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, but the evidence indicates that adverse reactions to sulphites are rare and at the levels used in wine it's unlikely that people will be affected. The strongest argument for not using sulphites during winemaking, and just a little at bottling, seems to be that the natural wines thus produced seem to show greater aromatic purity, better texture and are just a bit different. I've liked many that I've tried, even though as a scientist I know that it's risky from a microbiological point of view, as there's nothing to keep the bugs out or maintain the wine's stability.”
John Townley, a friend I made during my days at the Dulwich Wine Society, works for the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) and believes it is a myth that Champagne does not cause hangover. His reasoning is that “hangovers” are primarily caused by alcohol withdrawal and since champagne of any quality is relatively lower in alcohol than many sparkling wines, it is less likely to give hangovers. It may also be that the high cost of Champagne precludes most people from drinking enough of it to sustain a hangover.
Whether these theories are urban myth or not, I admit to being surprisingly clear headed and without a trace of hangover after my day spent at the Veuve Cliquot Gold Cup event. Having suffered after over-indulging in other types of sparkling wines, I feel there may be a grain of truth in these theories. I do not believe however that Champagne replaces the need for good hydration, moderation of intake, and having food whilst drinking.
What is your experience with Champagne and other sparkling wines? I would be interested in readers' views.
* The Champenoise Methode
In the “First Fermentation” stage, the 3 types of grapes permitted, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are pressed and fermented in large vats. The fermentation is stopped before it is complete by chilling the vats so that some natural sugar is still left in the wine.
The next stage, allegedly invented by Dom Perignon, is called “Blending”. This is when wines from different areas of the region and from different years are blended together until a desired taste is achieved. When the blend is right, the wine is bottled with some extra yeast.
The “Secondary Fermentation” stage can take up to two years and is when the added yeast acts on the sugar by turning it into carbon dioxide, giving the wine its natural fizz. When the secondary fermentation is complete, all the natural sugar in the grapes is used up and the resulting wine tastes so dry as to be undrinkable.
The penultimate stage is called “Degorgement” and is the step which some argue is closely associated with the prevention of hangover from good quality Champagne. In this phase, the added yeast is encouraged to move towards the cork where it settles. To achieve this, the bottles are stored with the cork pointing downwards and regularly and gently shaken to facilitate the process. To remove the big lump of yeast and other impurities from the wine, the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the pressure of the fizz pushes the ice out with the yeast encased in it when the bottle is unsealed.
The last stage known as “Topping-up and Corking” is when the Champagne is tested for dryness. As some of the wine is lost when the yeast is removed, the bottle is topped with a mixture of sweet white wine and sugar. Depending how much sugar is used, the resulting bottle will vary from “Brut” (very dry) to “Doux” (very sweet). A new cork is then put in the bottles.