Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne Is More Than Bubbles

Bruce Sanderson
Issue: November 15, 2002

Champagne is the victim of its own success. So ingrained is the image of Champagne as a celebratory drink, to be enjoyed on special occasions, that wine drinkers don't think of Champagne as they do white or red table wines. Given a choice of wines to drink with dinner, most would not put Champagne high on the list.

Champagne, however, is a wonderful accompaniment to food. Its vibrant acidity and effervescence work as a wonderful palate-cleanser. The generally restrained flavors prevent Champagne from overwhelming many dishes. As with other wines, the balance between sweetness and acidity and the wine's weight on the palate act as guidelines for food pairing. Although all Champagnes bear a single appellation, there are many types and styles, making Champagne compatible with a wide range of cuisines.

For example, a Brut Blanc de Blancs, made from 100 percent Chardonnay, offers a worthy substitute at the table for many Chardonnays from other regions. Citrus, honey and hazelnut flavors are the common denominators, while the bread dough component from aging on the yeast complements a number of sauces, particularly those found in Asian dishes.

Pinot Noir—based Champagnes, specifically those with some maturity, match well with fish and meat dishes. Their weight and flavors stand up to pork, veal and roast beef, especially if mushrooms are involved. I have often had Brut Rosé, either vintage or non-vintage, paired with dessert; extra-dry Champagnes, with their moderate sweetness, also work in this role. For the true Champagne lover, the various styles—non-vintage, vintage, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé—allow for a progression of weight and flavor throughout the meal.

Three meals that I had recently illustrated the flexibility of Champagne with food. Two offered a range of Champagne styles matched to different courses; the other took a more radical approach, serving the same Champagne throughout a meal.

At a tasting and lunch hosted by the team from Nicolas Feuillatte, each of the Feuillatte wines was paired with a different dish. Texture, flavor and sweetness were the key elements, with the seafood or meat theme of each course offset by richness, sweetness or an herbal note.

The bright citrus flavors and rich texture of the Brut Premier Cru NV matched the creaminess of an English pea flan, with morels and Bayonne cured ham adding an accent of smoky earthiness. For the Cuvée Palmes d'Or 1992, an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, a roasted pork loin provided a discreet backdrop, allowing the soft polenta and honey glaze to meet the baking bread flavor and richness of the Champagne.

By contrast, a Japanese menu with Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1985 paired an assortment of fish, meat, sauces and broths with one wine, revealing the versatility of a single Champagne with food and its affinity for Japanese cuisine. Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy has experimented extensively with his wine and Japanese food.

"Japanese cuisine has the ability to magnify flavors in a very simple way," Geoffroy asserts. "Champagne is not disruptive to the food combinations because it's as low in tannin as wine can get."

What fascinated me was how the different preparations exposed different characteristics in the wine. A salmon and shiso combination matched well overall; kanpachi sashimi coaxed the roasted hazelnut and coffee notes out of the Champagne; and chicken with grated daikon and bonito broth enhanced the wine's citrus flavors and acidity. Perhaps the most interesting match was with the uni (sea urchin). Dynamic and changing, the pairing diminished the fruit flavors, revealing the texture of the Champagne, finishing with a delicate aftertaste of the sea.

At a dinner honoring Henri Krug's 40th anniversary with the Champagne house, Krug Brut 1989 was paired with a Chinese-Japanese combination of chicken salad and California, cucumber and smoked eel rolls. The sweet, sour and smoky combination played off the maturing, roasted character of the '89.

These and other Champagne and food combinations demonstrate that bubbly is a serious wine that deserves a place at the dinner table, either as a fresh alternative or alongside great white and red wines. Opening a bottle of Champagne simply to toast a birthday, anniversary or promotion is fine, but to preclude it as part of the meal is to miss out on one of life's finer pleasures.

Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator's tasting director, is the magazine's lead taster of Champagne.


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