Champagne – Known for centuries as the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, any fine meal should start with a glass of Champagne as its apéritif. It is a perfect ice-breaker, delicious palate-whetter and will make a celebration out of any dinner party or lavish lunch. But all too often the flute glasses get left in the reception area and are not taken to the dinner table. This may be to deprive your guests of experiencing some of the greatest – albeit possibly less obvious – of food- and wine-matching accompaniments.
Almost all of the great French wine regions make a sufficient variety of styles to drink throughout a meal – although sweet wines in Burgundy are something of a rarity. Champagne, perhaps incorrectly, is rarely viewed in this light, partly because almost all the production is sparkling (still wines from the area are called Côteaux Champenoise). Firstly it is important to reiterate that Champagne, the wine, can only originate from this region of northern France. No other sparkling wine in the world is able to style itself “Champagne” any longer, and even the term “Methode Champenoise” has been superseded by “Methode Traditionelle”. Champagne, as a region, is unusual in France and Europe in that its wines and traditional cuisine appear at odds with one another. Its wine is the epitome of refinement, whilst the local food is the sturdy, rustic, cold weather fodder of the North – based on root vegetables, game, pâté and andouillettes.
It is also quite tricky to come to terms with the Champenois’ idea of drinking mature vintage Champagne with game and red meat, but very often it does work surprisingly well. Examples include cold roast game birds with rounded vintage Champagne – try something like Moët et Chandon Brut Impérial 2003 (subtle, complex and medium bodied with creamy vanilla flavours) with cold roast partridge or similar. However, the region’s most exclusive restaurants have also developed a repertoire of lighter dishes, often cooked in champagne sauces (think pan-fried sea bream with leeks in a Champagne-and-caviar sabayon). For these, a classic non-vintage Champagne will often be a greater match than even the finest single-year wine.
There are, however, some rather more obvious and heavenly food-and-wine marriages with Champagne. For example, a classy, absolutely bone-dry Champagne such as Philipponnat NV Non-Dosé (light, supremely elegant, refreshingly tart, minerally and with a beautifully lime and elderflower hint to the finish) with oysters (“Brut” Champagnes, the vast majority, are lightly sweetened to off-set their piercing acidity). As everyone knows, some sweet wines can work with savoury dishes – the classic pairings of Sauternes with foie gras or Roquefort spring to mind. Using Demi-Sec champagne with imagination can give some heavenly results, for example seared scallops served with such as Pol Roger's splendid "Rich" Demi-Sec (perfectly balanced with hints of ginger, cream and baked apples) – it must, however, be an exemplary example as cheap sweet fizz simply won't do a delicate seafood dish justice.
Gravadlax, smoked salmon and even delicate smoked trout work well with Chardonnay-dominant Champagne blends such as Ruinart “R” NV Brut (stylish crisp with biscuitty hints but apple & citrus flavours). Another delightful quality of Champagne is that it is one of few wines that can be enjoyed throughout the day without either ill effects or a guilty conscience! Indeed breakfast is a perfect time to crack open a bottle, and if wine at that time of day seems a shade too much then try Bucks Fizz made with freshly squeezed orange juice and a Champagne with plenty of tangy fruit with a zippy mousse such as Laurent Perrier NV. Good Brut champagnes with some weight such as Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV (smoky, rich, complex and restrained) with more black grapes in the blend work well with Thai and Asian flavours where hot, sour, salty and sweet are often found together. These flavours risk making a Brut champagne taste a little sweeter & more bland so complementing the food perfectly – in this instance a Demi-Sec would be a complete mis-match!
Rosé Champagne of course has now acquired ubër-trendy status, whether it is the best-selling Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV, (raspberry and leafy, floral scents) in its distinctive skittle-shaped bottle, or a prestige cuvée such as the ethereal Dom Pérignon Rose 1996 (sublime orchid-like perfume with redcurrant fruit flavours and gentle brioche notes). Rosé Champagne is a wonderful accompaniment to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, or even charcuterie and other really quite strongly flavoured meaty dishes. With top Rosé Champagne the sign to look for is a delicate orange tinge which indicates that the hint of colour has been present from the very beginning, and has come from the grapes by a process called saignée (bleeding) rather than by the addition of red wine at some subsequent point in the process. This progression of the colour is due to the ageing, and with the best vintage Champagnes, this is at least five years. Champagne is really the only style of wine where a five-year-old Rosé would still be drinkable, let alone at its apogee.
So it becomes apparent that there is more to Champagne than just as an apéritif introduction to the evening’s wines or events. Champagne is truly a wine of diversity, something that was so neatly encapsulated by Madame Lilly Bollinger:
"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it, – unless I'm thirsty."
Rod Smith MW, from Vins Sans Frontières, is one of only a handful of Masters of Wine working in France and the only one to work with yachts. The MW qualification is the highest possible achievement in the world of wine and something only 301 people hold.
For more information, visit Vins Sans Frontières (or the VSF Group) at www.vsfgroup.com.