Bottoms up! Wendy Holden is distressed by the lack of fizz in a study of her favourite tipple

Uncorked: the science of champagne

Gerard Liger-Belair <em>Princeton University Press, 160pp, £12

Gerard Liger-Belair is a professor of champagne and a leader in the field of bubble study. While this may sound like a euphemism for "alcoholic", it turns out that he is perfectly serious. He is associate professor of physical sciences at the University of Reims and (titter ye not) works as a consultant in the research department of Moet et Chandon. (Well, who doesn't, eh? Especially at this time of year.) It would be amusing to be a fly on the wall when the dreaded dinner-party question "And what do you do?" is asked of Liger-Belair.

It is unclear what benefit his research into the chemistry of bubbles in carbonated beverages has actually brought to Moet et Chandon - he talks vaguely about "improving the beverage's hallmark fizz". But, possibly to justify his existence, he has produced this volume. It's small and gold, a sort of dwarf coffee-table book, and seeks to answer those bubble-related questions surrounding champagne. In my experience, however, people aren't nearly as interested in being told about bubbles as they are interested in drinking them, and in this context, having Liger-Belair bang on about "bursting events" (when a bubble pops) and "Rayleigh-Plateau instability" (don't ask) is a bit like being buttonholed by a bore at a party you are trying to enjoy.

There are some interesting revelations, however. Champagne fizzes only in slightly grubby glasses; impurities on the glass wall contain air pockets that act as "nucleation sites". Champagne served in super-clean glasses has no bubbles at all, which might explain the bizarre experience I once had at a certain V V posh London hotel when, in a former life, I reviewed restaurants for Harpers and Queen. I ordered champagne as an aperitif (well, the mag was paying) and was puzzled to see, when it arrived in a strange bell-shaped vessel, that it was completely still. Being a tyro reviewer, cowed by such grand places, I at first imagined this was what smart champagne looked like. I later decided that it was just flat, but Liger-Belair has made me wonder if the glass wasn't, after all, just preternaturally clean. Well, he hasn't, really, but it would have been interesting if the head waiter had used that excuse.

Liger-Belair also reveals that Dom Perignon was originally employed by his wine-making abbey to get the bubbles out of champagne. The French aristocracy of the 17th century loathed them, which confirms my long-held view that most French people, for all their vinous reputation, actually know sod all about wine. It was not until the return of Charles II to the British throne that the good times started to roll for fizz and Dom Perignon reversed his efforts. Then, as now, the English were partial to a bit of bubbly.

Liger-Belair has some arresting theories about champagne. Jupiter, thanks to the action of its atmosphere on the alcohol, is apparently the place to drink if you like fine bubbles (which he confirms as the sign of a good champagne). Other theories are just stupid, such as that tired old myth that coupe glasses were modelled on the breasts of "the famed Marie Antoinette". As if the queen of France, daughter of an empress, would do anything so vulgar.

What this book lacks is anecdote and colour. It is full of science, and not terribly riveting science at that, sandwiched between some embarrassingly trite and obvious remarks. ("A lover of champagne - either a guest at your next New Year's party or a connoisseur at a banquet - certainly can drink a glass and enjoy it with great pleasure." Well, yes.) Nor are the much-heralded close-up, high-speed, never-before-seen photographs of champagne ("lovely flowers, geometric patterns, even galaxies as they rise through the glass") quite what they're cracked up to be.

I speak as a passionate lover of champagne. It is my favourite wine by a long way, guaranteed to brighten up the dullest day and add sparkle to the brightest. No one was more disposed to look upon this volume kindly. But I have to say that, in the end, it just lacked fizz.

Wendy Holden's new novel, The Wives of Bath, is published by Headline on 3 January (£12.99)