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Bringing out the flavours in food

The moderate consumption of Champagne is a pleasure that should be enjoyed whenever possible and there are as many occasions to drink Champagne as there are hours in a day. Quite apart from its symbolic value, Champagne also happens to be an excellent wine – something we sometimes forget to say. To some extent however, the way to drink Champagne does depend on the the time of day and the nature of the occasion.

PAIRING CHAMPAGNE WITH MAIN DISHES

Champagne lunches and dinners
Nothing quite equals Champagne as a single wine to serve throughout the meal. A Champagne chosen with care represents the ultimate in refinement and elegance.

No-one would dream of excluding a great wine from their table, and nor should they. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire and the Rhône all make excellent wines, as do other vineyards in France and abroad. The opportunity to drink such wines (always in moderation of course) is a rare privilege that we should relish. Champagne does not so much compete with these noble flag-bearers as complement them. There are occasions however, when the meal is so superior that only Champagne will do.

Champagne kicks off the festivities and puts guests in the right mood long before they gather round the table. The glittering ice bucket; the Champagne wrapped in all its glory; those much-awaited three knocks that signal the start of the celebrations and the releasing of those magical bubbles— Champagne provides all the atmosphere you need. The first glass sets the tone for the event as a whole, which depending on the circumstances may be hushed, joyful or sometimes quite intellectual. Champagne exerts a unique appeal that hits the spot every time. It is also a wine for all seasons, crisp and refreshing in summer, the ultimate icebreaker in winter, equally ideal for eating al fresco, winter banqueting or a romantic dinner for two.

Quite apart from creating just the right atmosphere, pairing an entire meal with Champagne greatly simplifies matters for the host. For a start, it avoids having to serve a mix of wines, which is an increasingly controversial issue anyway. Choosing the right wines and the order in which to serve them can be be a real headache for the host and isn’t always appreciated by guests. Mixing wines certainly doesn’t agree with everyone so all the more reason to serve nothing but Champagne, particularly for a business lunch when you want to leave the table firing on all cylinders.

Serving only Champagne also simplifies things so far as the meal preparations are concerned. Bottles can be purchased or brought up from the cellar shortly before the event, which is more than you can say for an Haut-Brion or a Volnay. Cooling your Champagne is also a lot easier than bringing red wine to the correct temperature, particularly in freezing winter weather when there is an eight degree difference between the temperature in the cellar (12°C) and the temperature in the room (20°C). Both extremes are bad for red wine. Then there is the wine service itself. Champagne does not require decanting and when it comes to wine glasses, a Champagne glass will do nicely. What’s more, your white tablecloth will retain its pristine appearance even if there are spills.

Champagne and food: pairing with foie gras

Champagne with the sweet course

It is common practice at banquets to reserve Champagne for the toast but genuine aficionados prefer to drink it is as an aperitif and/or with the starter. There again, as it says in the French song Le Chansonnier du vin de Champagne en 1890 Champagne goes well with almost anything: "You can serve it throughout your grandest meal, safe in the knowledge that not even the ladies among your guests will object."

Indeed by the late 19th Century, it was de rigueur to serve Champagne with the meal, as evidenced by two documents dating from that period. The first is the Notice historique sur le vin de Champagne, a historical pamphlet on Champagne wine written for the Paris Exhibition of 1889. The second is Le Vin de Champagne, a brochure published in 1896 by the Grandes Marques Champagne Houses, which states as follows: "There is a regrettable but all too common misconception, especially among the French, that Champagne should be reserved for the sweet course. This is to misunderstand the art of good eating. Champagne wine, by its very nature, does not go well with fruit and sweet meats. It should be served before the pudding. Only then can one truly appreciate its refined character and delicacy of taste."

It is however quite possible to appreciate bubbly with the sweet course so long as you choose a relatively sweet Champagne containing a small amount of sugar (or dosage). Too often people make the mistake of serving a Brut Champagne, which is simply too dry to complement the sweetness of the pudding. Sec or Demi-Sec Champagne, on the other hand, makes an ideal dessert wine and has indeed been recognized as such since the early 19th Century. It is also a natural counterpart to the Brut Champagne that usually precedes it, providing a sweet respite much like the pudding itself. The consensus among food critics and food lovers in general is that a relatively sweet style of Champagne, such as Sec or Demi-Sec, is a good choice for the sweet course, not to mention a Champagne afternoon tea with indulgent patisseries ...

The only exception to this rule is an old, recently disgorged Brut vintage Champagne — if you’re lucky enough to find one. An old Sec or Demi-Sec Champagne is also a very good choice. This is one case where Champagne actually benefits from long aging, as confirmed by President of the Union Nationale des Œnologues Jacques Puisais: "Contrary to received wisdom, a sweet Champagne that has undergone long aging pairs particularly well with the pudding". (Revue Touring, April 1980)

Alternatively, you can offer your guests a choice: a relatively sweet Champagne with the pudding or the Brut that preceded it. That way everybody is satisfied.

Pairing a variety of Champagne wines with the meal

Champagne has the status to go with even the finest foods — which is easy enough to say, but not so easy to put into practice. The skill lies in finding a combination where the dish brings out the best in the wine and vice versa. For this, you need to know what works and what doesn’t, carefully orchestrating your ingredients to give your guests a truly unique culinary experience.

For an intimate meal for two, a Brut Champagne (Vintage or Non-Vintage) always goes down well. By the end of the meal, nobody will be asking for a change of Champagne with the pudding, no more than they will question the suitability of the Brut with the preceding courses. Dedicated Champagne aficionados will be rather more discerning with regard to wine pairing, selecting a Champagne to go with each course as described below.

Assuming you have a number of guests at the table, you have the chance to offer a selection of Champagne wines, aiming to enhance the food and wine combinations at each point in the meal. There are no hard and fast rules here since it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, but the following guidelines will help you to match Champagne and food based on tried and tested principles that are endorsed by the experts.

Any full-course meal should awaken the appetite by stages. The experience is a gradual build-up to the crescendo of the main course (or courses), starting with light dishes and rounded off with a palate-cleansing salad, followed by cheese and pudding. The same goes for the wines, which should be served in ascending order of intensity: light before strong, young before old and dry before sweet. Matching the flavours of the wine with the flavours of the dish is not that difficult. Just remember to go from lighter to heavier so that no wine ever causes you to regret the previous one.

Every Champagne has its own distinctive style, a particular signature that is part of the brand personality. That distinction should be communicated in the tasting note. For instance, a Champagne may be described as masculine or feminine. Masculine wines invite descriptors such as sincere, distinguished, seductive, bold, virile or solid, while feminine wines are said to be caressing, amiable, soft, evanescent, alluring, graceful or sometimes wildly expressive. You can use any metaphor you choose, but one of the most effective tactics is to borrow from the world of art. Champagne wines have been likened to Rubens paintings and Giacometti sculptures — the image says it all. Music is another good analogy. A Champagne that puts one in mind of Debussy is not likely to be confused with its Wagnerian counterpart. Then there are all those terms describing the character or intrinsic nature of a Champagne: modest, dependable, agreeable, charming, appealing, mischievous, sprightly, naughty, fanciful, haughty, impetuous … Notions of class distinction may also come into play, starting at the bottom of the ladder (poor, commonplace, peasant-like, ordinary) and ending at the top (racy, noble, regal, blue-blooded). Champagne winemakers prefer to group their wines in families: those with body, those with spirit, those with heart and those with soul. How people talk about wines depends on their particular culture and language and few do it better than the French. But in the end, finding just the right word to express the essence of a Champagne is a talent inspired by Champagne itself — words, spoken aloud or whispered into the ear of a loved one, which bring poetry to speeches and passion to declarations of love. And so it is that Champagne brings out the genius in all of us!

Champagne at the dinner table

Classic Champagne food pairings are based on matching, or sometimes contrasting, wines and foods of equal weight. In either case, the main elements to consider are flavour intensity and structure together with texture (the tactile sensation on the palate). Champagne bubbles not only tickle the palate but are pivotal to the whole experience. They can underline sharp flavours or create a striking contrast with the silky velvetiness of a sauce. The bubbles enhance the enjoyment of the food and vice versa.

Champagne appetizer pairings

This is that magical moment when Champagne really comes into its own. Wine of Kings, Champagne is the symbol of celebration par excellence, the perfect partner for those titillating nibbles that are passed around from guest to guest. Champagne is the ultimate icebreaker. It puts roses in the cheeks of the ladies and wings on the feet of the gentlemen who rush to refill the ladies’ glasses. Now is the time to serve a Blanc de Blancs. Preferably a fairly young, crisp-tasting Blanc de Blancs that whets the appetite for the meal that is to follow — a mouth-watering first glimpse of the gourmet pleasures in store. Best with cheese tartlets, nuts and mini-toasts topped with smoked salmon, foie gras or slices of andouillette. Not so good with sweet appetizers, bite-size pizzas or rustic charcuterie.

Champagne with caviar

This is the ultimate luxury food-and-wine pairing: the pungency of caviar matched with the bubbly delicacy of Champagne. Be careful what you choose though, otherwise the combination can seem a bit much. A youngish, crisp-tasting Blanc de Blancs makes a very good partner for caviar. Another possibility (though it works better in theory than in practice) would be a robust, Pinot-driven Champagne still in the first flush of youth.

Champagne with seafood

A Non-Vintage Blanc de Blancs is the best choice here. Creuse (Pacific) oysters pair well with a young Champagne while Belon oysters slip down a treat with a mature Vintage Champagne. Langoustine, scallops and lobster require an older, drier Champagne with enough power to match them.

Champagne with fish

A fresh and delicate Blanc de Blancs with plenty of mousse is the perfect foil for fresh-water fish like pike-perch, pike or trout served in a creamy buttery sauce. Salt-water fish like sea bass, sole, and red mullet meanwhile call for a well-balanced Non-Vintage Brut Blanc de Noirs. The choice of wine mainly depends on the sauce: the lighter the sauce, the lighter the Champagne and vice versa. Avoid fish stews like bouillabaisse or bourride, served with aioli sauce, which tend to overwhelm the taste of Champagne. Fish couscous on the other hand opens up a whole realm of possibilities.

Champagne with charcuterie

On the face of it, Champagne and charcuterie might seem unlikely partners but think again because the two together can actually provide an exciting opportunity to contrast flavours. Good examples include Champagne with andouillettes (chitterling sausages) in mustard sauce, with boudin blanc (white sausage) or with pâtés en croûte (paté in a pastry crust). Champagne with foie gras is a particularly tempting proposition but a word of caution here: Champagne and a semi-cooked terrine are rarely good bedfellows. But put Champagne with hot foie gras, preferably served with apples, and you can’t go wrong. Particularly if you choose a Pinot Noir-driven Vintage Champagne that brings out the creaminess of the liver — to say nothing of the enveloping silkiness of the luscious lobe …

Champagne with poultry

Free-range chicken, guinea fowl and capon are probably the best matches for Champagne (Vintage or Non-Vintage but always driven by the Pinot Noir). The bubbles pair beautifully with the melt-in-the-mouth texture of, say, a simple roast chicken, creating a subtle blend of flavours that shows off wine and dish alike. A rustic cooked fowl meanwhile pairs better with a young Blanc de Noirs, while any poultry recipe involving mushrooms in particular really calls for an older Brut Champagne or (slightly more daring) a Rosé Champagne. Truffle recipes are an exception. Only an old, really mature Champagne can match the majesty of the truffle. Together they make a fascinating couple that actually makes the wine and food taste better than they do solo.

Champagne with meat

White meat like poultry is another flattering combination with Champagne, particularly when the recipe uses crème fraîche (sour cream). The best choice here is a Brut Vintage Champagne – delicious with veal (veal chop, veal blanquette), braised ham or pork (especially pork tenderloin). With red meat on the other hand (beef and especially lamb) it really has to be rosé champagne, if only for the sake of colour consistency. Beef and carrot stew is another winner with Rosé Champagne, so too is osso bucco. Meat stews and casseroles also offer plenty of opportunity for contrasting pairings. A good example would be a rustic pot-au-feu with Champagne, especially when you scrape out the marrow and wash that down with bubbly. With exotic cuisine such as Chinese or Thai food, go for a sweeter, softer Champagne that will harmonise with the sweet and sour taste of the dishes — a Demi-Sec for instance.

Champagne with cheese

Coulommiers cheese with a robust Brut Non-Vintage Champagne — a pairing made in Heaven! The creaminess of the cheese works wonders with the liveliness of the Champagne. Other cheeses that will happily partner Champagne include Maroilles, Camembert, Reblochon, Comté and Brie. Blue cheese, on the other hand, has no affinity with Champagne and should be avoided.

Champagne with the pudding

Always a daunting prospect this, particularly if you’re serving a Brut Champagne throughout the meal. Sweet dishes can really knock the stuffing out of Brut Champagne, but if that’s your only choice then try a Blanc de Blancs with a chilled peach soup or a Rosé with a strawberry tart or a red-fruit salad. An older Brut pairs very nicely with a sweet soufflé. Anything sweeter, particularly if it involves chocolate, really calls for a Demi-Sec Champagne, though this risks ending the meal on a heavy note that might bring on palate fatigue. All things considered, it’s probably best to let your guests decide whether to stay with the Brut or switch to a relatively sweet Champagne with the pudding. That way, everyone is happy.

Champagne to end the evening

In the afterglow of the meal whenthe taste buds are at rest, nothing serves to keep the conversation flowing like Champagne. This is the moment to wheel out a rare and extravagant Prestige Cuvée — a wine to be sipped at leisure as you put the world to rights on the sofa between puffs on a fine cigar.

Champagne with breakfast, brunch, supper …

Champagne is by no means confined to lunch or dinner. It can be enjoyed with any meal you choose, starting with breakfast.

In Britain, Germany and German-speaking Switzerland Champagne breakfasts (or Champagner-Frühstücks as they are known to our Teutonic cousins), are a favourite way to start the day, whether at home or staying in a hotel. Champagne brunches are another treat —perfect for a lazy weekend or a bank holiday when you feel like spoiling yourself. Combining breakfast and lunch makes for a delicious experience that tastes particularly good with Champagne. At the end of the day meanwhile, there is nothing like a glass of Champagne with supper to sooth the digestion and help you get a good night’s sleep.

A non-vintage Brut Champagne will do nicely for a Champagne breakfast or an easy-going brunch or supper. Special occasions, like any meal where refinement counts, may need to be planned around a selection of Champagne wines. With Christmas dinner for instance, it is de rigueur to switch from a Brut to a Demi-Sec Champagne with the Yule log or Christmas pudding. A sweet-tasting brunch also tends to pair better with a Demi-Sec.

Champagne between meals

Champagne is good for all sorts of occasions, not just for meals. At home or in bars and restaurants, there is nothing like Champagne to stimulate the taste buds and put people in a party mood. Champagne is quite simply the perfect aperitif.

After a good dinner, a postprandial glass of Champagne is the ideal thirst quencher — essential to keep the conversation going and round off the evening in style. When clubbing or partying, a constant supply of bubbly will keep you dancing the whole night through. Perfect for recharging the batteries and refreshing the taste buds!

After the theatre, the cinema or an evening spent with friends or simply when relaxing at home, a glass of Champagne makes a soothing nightcap. And if by chance you have overdone it the night before, a mouthful of Champagne mid-morning is the best way to banish those hangover blues. By the time the aperitif comes round (Champagne of course) last night’s excesses will be nothing but a memory.

Other people drink Champagne to avoid that mid-morning slump that can come from intense intellectual activity. A glass of Champagne in a bar or at the office, perhaps accompanied by nibbles, is a great alternative to coffee with elevenses. In tearooms too, a glass of Champagne makes a welcome break for boutique and department store buyers, not to mention ladies who meet for high tea.

Champagne flows freely at wedding receptions and other family ceremonies, considered de rigueur at social gatherings of every description. Such occasions may not be the best time to appreciate a great wine (people understandably have other things on their minds) but they always go better with Champagne – better than with whisky, for instance, which really requires a dash of water.

A basic Brut Non-Vintage is all you need at times like these to break the ice and bring people together. Anything more ambitious is unnecessary — which is not say that you can’t vary the Champagne depending on the circumstances. If for instance there is a meal to follow, be particularly careful to choose a light-bodied Champagne for the aperitif, otherwise it might overshadow its immediate successor. Other considerations include the time of year, the type of food on offer and the guests who are attending the event. Choose a light, delicate Champagne for summer events and something more substantial in other seasons. Remember too that cakes and other sweet meats go best with a relatively sweet Champagne, which is often preferred by ladies from distant cultures and young, inexperienced Champagne drinkers.

The Land of Champagne: 07 - Gastronomy