How many bubbles are needed in bubbly?

By Scott Weybright, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

PULLMAN, Wash. – Fizzy bubbles are the big draw for those who love sparkling wine, but can they tell the difference between varying carbonation levels? And do they have preferences as to how much carbonation should be in their wine?

That’s what Washington State University School of Food Science graduate student Kenny McMahon is looking at as part of his Ph.D. dissertation with advisor Carolyn Ross.

Findings from his first study “showed that consumers like the lower carbonation levels but have a greater preference for the higher carbonated wines,” said McMahon, who presented his data at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual conference last week.

A second study is being conducted.

Detection and preference

For the first study, he convened two panels, one with trained wine tasters and one with typical wine consumers.

McMahon made his own sparkling wines – with differing carbonation levels – in a commercial Washington winery. The carbonation range was 0-7.5 grams of carbon dioxide per liter.

The trained panel was studied regarding attributes related to carbonation. Panelists were asked to consider the perception of bite/burn, carbonation/bubble-pain, foaminess, numbing, prickly/pressure and tingliness, as well as various aromas, flavors and basic tastes.

McMahon said the trained panel started to pick up those various attributes at lower carbonation levels than the typical consumers, but most participants noted the carbonation by about 2 grams per liter.

The consumer panel was studied to see if participants noticed the differing levels of carbonation and what amount they preferred.

McMahon also asked both panels to think about the carbonation in each sip and how it impacted the sensation in their mouths.

“We were looking to see at what point people noticed the carbonation-related attributes and what wine they liked the most,” he said.

Various grapes, carbonation levels

Sparkling wine is any wine containing carbonation, which gives rise to bubbles. The wine can be made using a variety of grapes, such as chardonnay or pinot noir.

Some sparkling wines, such as Portugal’s vinho verde, benefit from lower carbonation levels, but there haven’t been many studies on the subject.

Traditional producers keep a steady 9-11 grams per liter because that’s the way champagne was originally made. A proportion of U.S. producers of sparkling wine follow that tradition. But only wine made in the Champagne region of France can be labeled with the term “champagne.”



Kenny McMahon, WSU food science graduate student, 859-468-0094,
Carolyn Ross, WSU food science faculty, 509-335-2438,