Producers in Champagne are creating fuller-bodied wines designed to be enjoyed throughout a meal.
We all understand what it is. It is a wonderful, bubbly drink that we open to celebrate a baby's birth, a wedding, a birthday, or just the fact that it is Friday. Then when it's time to serve the food, we put down our flutes and move on to something altogether less frivolous: a still wine, white or red.
What a shame. We are missing out on some great wine-and-food moments, and only getting part of the story, and the glory, of great Champagne.
Yes, of course, we all know about Champagne and oysters, Champagne and caviar. But those are not real meals; they are aids to seduction in which Champagne—from the days when it was drunk out of showgirls' slippers—has played a willing part.
Now, increasingly, producers in Champagne are crafting wines that absolutely must be taken to the table and enjoyed with good food this holiday season—with fish, shellfish, chicken and, yes, with the turkey. These food-friendly Champagnes are distinct from apéritifs, or light, fresh, celebratory Champagnes. These new Champagnes have weight and gravitas. They have a predominance of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier rather than Chardonnay. They may well have seen some wood during fermentation and initial aging. They are typically very dry.
Good Wine = Good Champagne
"When we are vinifying, we don't think about Champagne, we think about the wine," says Jean-Hervé Chiquet, director of Jacquesson. "We make the best white wine possible. If you have this good basic wine, then you can make a Champagne which is powerful and interesting."
And, adds Chiquet, if you are drinking Champagne as a wine, then you need a white wine glass, not a Champagne flute.
It's the emphasis on wine rather than Champagne that sets food-friendly Champagnes apart from the others. "We are looking for an intense, vinous taste, even though we do not forget it is Champagne so it should retain elegance," says Charles Philipponnat of Philipponnat Champagne. Philpponnat's house style comes from the vines, especially its Clos des Goisses, a high, steep vineyard that towers over the winery and the little village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
"We are Pinot Noir people, that's what our style is all about," says Etienne Bizot, whose family owns Bollinger, the house that produces one of the classic food Champagnes. (The family recently bought Ayala, a venerable brand that will finally arrive in the U.S. next year.) Bollinger's winery is in the town of Aÿ, and the vineyards behind the town, on the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims, produce the most full-bodied, most powerful Pinot Noir in Champagne.
More Than an Apéritif
While producers of these Champagnes are all reaching for a similar style within their house style—something richer and more full-bodied than their apéritif Champagnes—they achieve this richness in a variety of ways. Gosset, whose specialty is wines layered with high acidity, doesn't let its wines go through malolactic. Philipponnat does, and yet still ends up with dry wines because of a low dosage (the addition of more or less sugar to balance the natural acidity of Champagne after the wine has gone through its second fermentation). Some producers say that wood is an essential part of the richness and structure of their style; Pol Roger, whose wines are as food-friendly as any, doesn't allow any wood into its ultramodern winery. Bollinger uses wood for a good proportion of its aging, until the Champagne is bottled and ready for its second fermentation. It is not new wood, but second- or third-fill wood, which offers oxidative properties but no wood flavor.
All of these producers are seeking a wine, according to Philippe Manfredini of Gosset, "that has persistency and length, that lasts in the mouth. There is nothing wrong with these food Champagnes as apéritifs," he hastens to add, not wishing to limit the role Champagne can play in an evening, "because once you start drinking it as an apéritif, then that automatically leads on to the cooking and the eating."
The range of foods that go well with Champagne is wide. Traditionally, Champagnes of lighter weight were said to cut through even the richest of dishes. But the producers I spoke to seem to favor lighter, simpler preparations—perhaps more a comment on contemporary cuisine than on the pure, fun science of wine and food pairing.
"Champagne is best with food without rich, traditional sauces, best with light, modern sauces," says Evelyn Roques-Boizel, director of Champagne Boizel.
Hervé Augustin, who is president of Ayala Champagne and was previously director-general at Bollinger, has written on Champagne and food (under the pseudonym Hervé Saint-Julien) pairings in his book Bollinger: Une Certaine Idée de Champagne. Of the new wave of Champagnes, he says, "They magnificently accompany dishes that are balanced, simple, barely salted and feature a great deal of taste."
Augustin lists some good matches: fish terrine, fish grilled or served with a light cream, poultry, scallops, pork, duck, pasta with seafood, risotto, desserts made with red berries or marzipan. As far as this long-time Champagne enthusiast is concerned, he could have added many spicy dishes, and Thai food.
So, as you prepare the holiday turkey, sweet potatoes, sage and onion stuffing and all the other traditional fare, there is now no need to worry about which venerable bottle you will bring from the cellar or the retail store to accompany the meal. This year, it's Champagne. Happy Holidays!
Great Champagnes for Great Food
A Personal Selection
96 Pol Roger 1995 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut Champagne; $195.
Named after the British prime minister, whose favorite tipple was Pol Roger (he went through a bottle a day), this prestige cuvée offers aromas of cookies and fresh butter, power from its dominance of Pinot Noir, depth of ripe fruit flavors, toast and complexity as it starts its maturity. Freshness comes through at the finish, with a touch of orange peel lingering magnificently. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
95 Billecart-Salmon 1996 Cuvée Nicolas Billecart Brut Champagne; $120.
A very dry style of Champagne that needs food. At this stage, this wine is young, with its acidity highlighting its dense, green fruits. But it has a long future ahead of it, and shortly should show some toast and maturity. Serve this with fish. Imported by Robert Chadderdon Selections.
95 Jacquesson et Fils 1995 Signature Extra Brut Champagne; $90.
This Pinot Noir-dominated wine is rich, structured with waves of acidity passing through the flavors of white currant and toast. Extra richness comes from the oak fermentation, but, because of the low dosage, there is also an austerity and minerality about this wine that will find its best expression with food. Imported by Winebow.
94 Gosset 1999 Grand Millésimé Brut Champagne; $85.
The latest vintage from Gosset, this rich, intense wine is still young, its acidity showing through strongly. But it has great depth, complex green and white fruit flavors, a hint of toast just showing and the promise of many years' aging. Imported by Palm Bay Imports.
93 Philipponnat 1997 Réserve Millésime Brut Champagne; $63.
A blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, this is a true food Champagne. "Our objective was to show how powerful Pinot Noir can get in our wines," says Charles Philipponnat, and he is right. It is rich but dry, concentrated, slightly spicy, with weight and intensity without losing freshness from the acidity. Imported by Ex-Cellars Wine Agencies, Inc.
91 Boizel 1998 Millésime Brut Champagne; $35.
The richer vintage wines from Boizel are often best with food. This 1998, a blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, has the right combination of creaminess and richness along with flavors of raspberries and fresh acidity. Demands food. Imported by Winebow.