MUCH ADO ABOUT CHAMPAGNE … A PERSPECTIVE ON CHAMPAGNE AND FOOD
By John and Tracy Anderson
Courtesy of S. Anderson Winery, Napa, California
Champagne has inspired more words of praise and sometimes criticism than perhaps any other wine. It has been lauded in poetry for centuries and celebrated in song. It has been called the ordinary wine of Kings as well as the Devil’s wine because of its explosive nature. All seem to agree that champagne brings a quality to life unlike any other. For some champagne is only consumed at a relative’s wedding, but to others champagne enhances their life each day. The Abbe de Chaulieu wrote of champagne, “Hardly did it appear than from my mouth it passed into my heart.”(1)
The lore of champagne is filled with courageous acts and bold people. Napoleon was a great lover of champagne and personally protected his favorite champagne house from invading armies. Churchill used champagne to elevate his spirits during England’s “darkest hours” of World War II and today has a prestige cuvee named for him. The pop of the champagne cork was heard resounding through James Bond’s greatest adventures.
Champagne can also create a euphoria that can lead to silliness. While modern man may tend to dance with a lampshade, our ancestors followed more sophisticated pursuits. In 1800, Sir William and Lady Hamilton were dining with Lord Nelson. “Lady Hamilton drank enough champagne to lose her inhibitions, and favored the company with her imitations of classical statuary.”(2) Evidently this was a fairly regular performance for Lady Hamilton.
Paul Bocuse tells a story of his apprenticing at a restaurant called La Pyramide in Vienne, France, under Fernand Point. It was Bocuse’s responsibility each morning to pour glasses of champagne for Point and his sous chef. After days of this, Bocuse decided that he should share in the morning ritual, so when his two superiors backs were turned, he would secretly pour himself some champagne in a salad bowl. Inevitably he was caught and expected strong words, but instead nothing was said. The next morning he poured for Point and set the bottle down, as he turned away Point stopped him and poured some champagne in a salad bowl. Bocuse was served by his chef in this fashion each morning for the next five years.(3) Point, a great lover of champagne who was never far from an open magnum said, “I like to start off my day with a glass of champagne…I like to wind it up with champagne, too. To be frank, I also like a glass or two in between. It may not be the universal medicine for every disease, as my friends the champagne people in Reims and Epernay so often tell me, but it does you less harm than any other liquid.” (4)
Point knew what Du Chesne (physician to Louis XVI) also knew, that champagne should never be separated from food. Du Chesne ascribed his longevity (he lived to be 91) to the fact that he ate a salad every night and drank only champagne.(5) Whereas in the past champagne, like other wines, was consumed with only scant thought to its “proper” pairing with food. Today such concerns seem to be the reigning passion. With some wines this can prove quite a challenge, but surprisingly, Champagne is one of the most versatile wines with food. Although it does make a special occasion seem even more special, it should not be relegated to just weddings and parties. it should also be noted that most California Champagnes are reasonably priced, in fact they are less expensive than many California Cabernets and Chardonnays.
Champagne goes quite well with African, Chinese, Japanese, German, Indian, Northern Italian, and, of course, French food, but not necessarily luxury French food. The regional food of Champagne is peasant soups and salads, potatoes and cabbage, so you don’t have to have souffles and caviar to enjoy champagne with your meal. In fact pizza, potato chips, and other salty foods go amazingly well with champagne.
There are, however, some foods that are natural and perfect combinations with Champagne. Caviar, oysters, shellfish, and salmon are classic, but turkey, sausages, smoked fish and poultry, dim sum and sushi almost always go with champagne, and a roast lamb is quite delicious with Rose. Sweet desserts are a difficult pairing with any wine that isn’t also sweet, but fruit desserts, light cakes and souffles can be enhanced by a full bodied champagne.
Champagne is the only wine that people accept in such a multitude of styles. Champagnes can range from burnt, carmely oxidized to full bodied fruit and yeast characters to light and citrusy, and everything in between. Then each of these wines can be altered in its amount of residual sweetness from a bone-chilling dryness to sugar syrup. Bottle age will also alter the weight and character of each of these styles.
In pairing champagne, let it never be said that your personal preference isn’t the correct one. The whole point of food and wine pairing is to make your meal more enjoyable.
The following is an attempt to generalize champagne to styles and the foods that are best with them, but bear in mind that every wine from every producer is unique and will pair with food in a slightly different way than all the others. There are several different ways to approach wine and food pairing; to enhance the food, to enhance the wine, or as was our choice, to bring out the best in both food and wine.
1. Light Citrusy Champagnes: These go best with seafood dishes that are served plain or with a light sauce. The high acid present in this style should be paired with foods that tend towards tartness. Filet of Sole Mousse with a Lime Beurre Blanc is well suited. A light chicken dish is also suitable. You might use the champagne as an addition to your sauce. These wines also enhance foods that might be considered bland on their own.
2. Fruity Champagnes tending towards perceived Sweetness: These are perhaps the most versatile and most easily accessible to the new palate. Fruity champagnes go quite well with fruit and lighter cheeses, seafood, white meats, light and/or fruit desserts.
3. Full Bodied Yeasty Champagnes: These wines are quite versatile as well and can usually stand up to seafood and white meats with richer sauces and perhaps some red meats such as filet mignon with an orange and rosemary sauce. Most people prefer this style of champagne with caviar and your “classic” champagne foods.
4. Rosé Champagne: Since this wine has higher tannins it is perhaps the best to pair with beef or lamb with light sauces, but it also goes quite well with white meats, fruit, and cheese. This wine can usually stand up to slightly heavier desserts than other champagnes.
5. Heavy, Caramely, Madeirized Champagnes: This very heavy style of wine usually pairs well with heavier foods; seafood and white meats with creamy, buttery sauces, sausages, stronger cheeses and nuts. This is a very personal style of champagne that most who weren’t raised with French champagne have to acquire a taste for and those that prefer it are likely to find it suitable with many of the foods discussed under other styles.
Whether consuming champagne as an aperitif or with food, remember that it is a wine, yet a wine enhanced with a sparkling nature. Champagne is very special indeed.
Sheldon & Pauline Wasserman, Sparkling Wine (New Jersey: New Century Publishers, Inc., 1984), p. 14
Serena Sutcliffe, Champagne (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) p. 15
Fernand Point, Ma Gastronomie (Wilton, CT: Lyceum Books, 1974), p. 28
Point, p. 27
Sutcliffe, p. 13