A brief history of bubbly's vessels from coupes to flutes and everything in between
Every Valentine’s day, countless couples toast to their romances with glasses of champagne. There’s something about the ceremonial popping of the cork and the elegant, slender shape of this beverage’s iconic vessel that temporarily transforms you into one of society’s elite. The flute was first discovered by the English in 1750—a definite upgrade from the metallic goblets used previously. But over the ages, it has competed with a stout, bowl-like drinking vessel as the champagne-drinking glassware of choice: the coupe. And once you hear the origin stories surrounding this voluptuous vessel, you might be convinced to pull out a pair of coupes for your Valentine’s champagne.
The most famous tale regarding the coupe glass dates back to the 1780s, not long after champagne was first popularized among the French royal court. Legend has it that Louis XVI commissioned a bowl-like porcelain dish called a jatte-téton to be modeled after his wife Marie Antoinette’s breast, complete with an evocative nipple at its base. The bowl was set in a three-footed pedestal and had to be lifted up and cradled in order to drink from it. But Brian Hart Hoffman, author of The Coupe: Celebrating Craft Cocktails and Vintage Collections, is quick to debunk the myth.
“There are many coupe-shaped glasses that predate Marie Antoinette so we know that the glass shape itself was not formed from her breast,” Hart Hoffman says. In fact, the feminine shape has appeared in drinking vessels as early as the 9th century in the form of a terracotta mastos cup used by the Greek. That, however, hasn’t stopped the breast-coupe association from persisting. Famously, Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer have both lent their assets to inspire coupe glass designs.
While coupes and flutes have been used in Europe for centuries, the coupe took hold in the United States during the prohibition-era 1920s and ‘30s. Then, the glass served not only champagne but also refined cocktails. Its popularity ballooned as it became synonymous with Hollywood’s elite. “It was a period of time when a lot of actresses and celebrities were drinking champagne from coupe glasses,” Hart Hoffman explains. “It became a status symbol.”
While the coupe’s open shape might be a fashionable way to enjoy a bottle of bubbly, it unfortunately means all that hard-earned effervescence tends to dissipate quite quickly, leaving you with a stylish but flat coupe-full of fizzy wine if you sip too slowly. “The champagne-drinking coupe era came to a close in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Hart Hoffman explains. “The champagne flute really became the main vessel that people were serving champagne in. I chalk it up to an increased return to the love of the effervescence of the champagne and retaining the bubbles in the glass.”
The flute’s narrow opening helps it keep more of that coveted carbonation in the beverage. A proper champagne flute will have an etched bead at its base where the effervescence should start, while the tall and slender shape heightens the visual appeal of the bubbles as they travel up the length of the glass. You’ll also experience an entertaining “nose tingle” as the bubbles pop at the top—something that you might miss if sipping from a coupe.
But if you’re enjoying a pricey, long-aged variety of champers, wine experts actually recommend using a tulip-shaped glass. The glass, which looks a bit like a hybrid between a flute and a wine glass, should only be partially filled while the bulbous midsection of the tulip glass lets the drinker take in the complex aromas and flavours that finer champagnes have to offer. In fact, Maximilian Riedel, Chief Executive of Riedel Crystal, is determined to make the flute “obsolete” in his lifetime.
But, in reality, most of us are probably sipping at younger (re: cheaper) champagnes where the precise shape of the glassware doesn’t make a significant impact on your drinking experience. So, pick up whatever glassware you’ve got on-hand or are in the mood for. “I enjoy champagne in any form that I can drink it,” Hart Hoffman jokes. I can attest to sipping champagne and sparkling wines from pretty much any receptacle you can think of—paper coffee cup, rice bowl, red Solo cup and, my favorite, a Magic Bullet blender top. Expedited effervescence be damned.