Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Making a Case for Champagne at the Table: Dinner with Krug

Bruce Sanderson
Issue: December 15, 2007

Most people I know enjoy beginning a good meal with a glass of Champagne. But how many have tried serving different Champagnes with each course throughout the meal?

Though bubbly is most often popped for toasts or celebrations, fine Champagne makes a great match with food. I recently rediscovered this pleasure during a dinner at Aretsky's Patroon in New York, organized by sommelier Peter Konopka and Charles Curtis, director of wine and spirits education at Moët Hennessy USA. I was also reminded how well top Champagne develops with time.

Curtis and Konopka selected five different vintages of Krug—1996, 1995, 1976, 1961 and the 1986 from their single-vineyard Clos du Mesnil. Executive chef Bill Peet came up with some creative pairings, especially the dessert course, which he paired with the magnificent 1961. All the bottles came from Patroon's cellar. (The wines were served non-blind, and therefore the scores that follow are not official Wine Spectator ratings.)

I have tasted the 1996 (98 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) several times this year. Firm and racy, yet with a creamy midpalate, it tasted of apricots and toast. A refined Champagne, it was served as an aperitif and was accompanied by a number of hors d'oeuvres. My favorite match was the Kumamoto oysters with Champagne-Asian pear gelée.

The first course was caramelized diver scallops from Maine over preserved lemon and herb quinoa pilaf with a caviar beurre blanc; it was paired with the Krug Collection 1976 (94 points). The hot and sunny drought year yielded a bubbly with big, robust aromas of toast, tobacco, coffee and gingerbread. It was still fresh, despite its obvious weight, and the finish echoed coffee and a candied berry note. The smoky, roasted elements in the Champagne matched the caramelized scallops, with a counterpoint from the preserved lemon, which picked up the acidity in the wine.

The next course featured a salad with a lightly baked goat cheese crottin and the Krug 1995 (96 points). Broader and more opulent than the '96, the '95 showed a lovely texture and vibrant finish. The goat cheese provided a relatively neutral backdrop that allowed the Champagne to shine.

This was followed by the Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil 1986 (95 points) with spit-roasted heirloom French chicken stuffed with black truffle and truffle butter-and-foie gras sauce. On its own, the Chardonnay-based Clos du Mesnil was aromatic, showing tropical fruit, coconut, fresh chanterelle and woodsy aromas. It picked up candied berry and honey flavors. It was absolutely gorgeous up front, but lacked the length of the other vintages. Though not a bad match, this pairing was the least successful. The chicken dish was a bit strong for the Champagne. Nothing clashed, but there was no synergy.

The final course, on the other hand, was brilliant. Who would have thought of putting the Krug 1961, a dry Champagne, up against dessert? Chef Peet did, and it was an amazing combination.

The Krug Collection 1961 was magnificent. Dried peach, apricot and quince paste led off, followed by coffee, smoke, a blast of caramel and citrus peel flavors. Incredibly complex, rich and mellow on the palate, it lingered on and on. I rated it a perfect 100 points.

And the dessert? A maple financier cake. It had just a hint of sweetness, so as not to compete with the wine. Maple-glazed finger bananas and salted caramel ice cream worked with the flavors, texture and balance of the Champagne for a seamless match. The combination of the two was something greater.

The bottles of 1976 and 1961 demonstrated how well great Champagne ages. I have had the good fortune to taste mature Krug Champagnes on previous occasions. In April 2000, Rémi Krug and his daughter Caroline organized a tasting of mature vintages. All of the wines were poured from magnums shipped directly from Krug's cellars in Reims, France. The 1961 was part of that tasting, too. In a Krug retrospective (Collecting, June 30, 2000), I wrote: "The 1961 [97 points], powerful and intense, exhibited distinctive flavors of soya, beef bouillon, caramel, hazelnut and mushroom, and has plenty of life ahead."

With so many distinctive vintages and cuvées, Champagne has the diversity to carry an entire meal. I also have high expectations that the Krug 1996 will develop like the 1961. I hope I can keep my hands off the few bottles I have for another 20 years.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson has been with Wine Spectator since 1993.



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