Champagne and food pairings6 min read . Updated: 27 Dec 2014, 09:18 PM IST
There are many different styles of champagne and, collectively, they go beautifully with many foods, from foie gras to fried chicken
Champagne is so special, rare and prized that we often forget it is wine after all, and wines are meant to be enjoyed with meals. But because of its celebratory nature, it has become more common to raise a glass for a toast or enjoy a flute as a pre-dinner apéritif than as a paired wine. This is a mistake because there are many different styles of champagne and, collectively, they go beautifully with many foods, from foie gras to fried chicken.
When champagne is served with a meal, it has traditionally been brunch, and this makes sense, because eggs remain one of a handful of ingredients, like artichokes, that befuddle sommeliers and typically do not go well with almost any still wines. Also because champagne and eggs are a classic pairing, like Bordeaux and lamb, and champagne also goes very well with mushrooms, another brunch staple. It is a great breakfast choice, but with a little planning, champagne can perform equally well at lunch or dinner, especially over holidays or anytime you really want to surprise your guests.
“One thing people do not realize is how versatile champagne can be," said Devon Broglie, one of the world’s elite certified master sommeliers and the associate global beverage buyer for upscale retailer Whole Foods Market. Broglie is a champion of sparklers with food, and says: “The only course I find difficult to pair with champagne is dessert. It is crucial that the champagne be sweeter than the dessert or the dessert will seem less sweet and the champagne exceedingly tart. If you are pairing champagne with dessert, stick to demi-sec or doux and pair with desserts designed to be less sweet: dark chocolate and citrus desserts spring to mind."
Champagne comes in six levels of sweetness, always shown on the label, and from driest to sweetest they are extra brut, brut, extra sec (dry), sec (dry), demi-sec, and doux (sweet). Most widely sold champagnes are brut, and the sweeter ones are specialty items that must be actively sought out, if you are looking for a dessert pairing as Broglie suggests. Currently, demi-sec in particular is enjoying a revival, the fastest growing champagne subcategory. One of the most widely available labels is D’Luscious, a demi-sec rose from Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. With food, this can take the place of crisp white wines typically chosen to stand up to spicy foods such as your favourite Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese dishes, according to Champagne Feuillatte’s business development manager Francois Beall.
There are also a few other key styles that matter when it comes to food. Most regular champagnes are a mix of three grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. But there is a category known as blanc de blancs, made with only chardonnay. Conversely, blanc de noirs are made only from black grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and these are less common. Roses are generally considered the most premium champagnes, and in cases where the same label makes a rose and non-rose version, as with Dom Perignon, the rose commands a premium. As the name suggests they are pinkish or rose in colour, and fuller bodied.
As with still wines, it is ideal to move from lighter to fuller bodied as the meal progresses, and the easiest way to do that is to begin with a blanc de blancs, which are lighter in structure and typically work well with hors d’oeuvres and lighter starters such as shellfish and delicate soups. Regular champagne such as a brut, would come next, and can go with delicate but strongly flavoured dishes, and Guillaume Roffiaen, director of oenology and quality for champagne at Nicolas Feuillatte, suggests things such as grilled calamari; stir-fried prawns with lemongrass; bruschetta with tomatoes, garlic, and prosciutto di parma; and caviar with eggs and crème fraiche. Roses are the single most versatile category for food pairings and can go with almost every course—except dessert, warns Elise Losfelt, winemaker for Moët & Chandon. The same elements that make rose work with spicy food hurts it with sweet: “Be careful of pairing rose with sweet dishes and especially avoid desserts. The acidity of the wine and sweetness of the dish will not work together. Imagine pairing a glass of lemon juice with chocolate cake, it’s the same principle." Roses can go with many meat courses, but especially savoury dishes, seared foie gras, salmon, classic holiday dishes such as roasted turkey and leaner proteins such as beef or pork tenderloin. If you are serving a hearty red meat that would normally go with big red wine, like a standing rib roast, consider a blanc de noirs, deep gold in colour and typically the most full-bodied champagne style.
By way of general rules, Moet & Chandon’s chef du cave, Benoit Gouez, says that, “Younger wines favour briny, acidic flavours such as shellfish and citrus. Older vintages pair well with heartier foods and richer sauces. Simpler recipes with fewer ingredients work best. And play with salt. Champagne likes salt." Losfelt concurred: “Oily and salty foods bring out the fruitiness and freshness of champagne, especially brut like Moet & Chandon’s flagship Imperial. This pairs wonderfully with really fun, salty foods like truffle French fries, fried chicken and cheeses like slightly aged goat cheese, hard Parmesan, or firm Gouda." Broglie of Whole Foods notes that “Champagne is complex and textured. It is medium to full bodied with great acidity and goes very well with salty and fried foods or anything with a creamy texture and loads of fat. Popcorn, French fries, foie gras, caviar, soft ripened cheeses, pizza, oysters, fish and chips, clam chowder, anything in a cream sauce." For the very same reasons, Beall says that, “drier champagnes like the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve work well with a wider variety of dishes and the acidity in the champagne can cut through the richness. Try it with classic, rich dishes like risotto or your favourite indulgences like truffle fries and fried chicken." Champagne food accompaniments need not be fancy to be delicious—everyone sees to love it with fried chicken, and Beall has even seen it successfully paired with burgers.
Certain foods work especially well with champagne, so well that they might be worthy of special consideration if you are planning an elaborate pairing dinner. Risotto is a perfect champagne food, as are pastas in oil or cream sauces, but avoid anything with tomato-based sauce because of acidity, as well as overly sweet foods. Vegetables, especially mushrooms and asparagus, are naturals. Fish works well but consider the weight—simple poached white fish might want a blanc de banc while darker fish or fish in heavy sauces needs a more full bodied style like rose. Champagne goes well with aged hard cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, gouda, or cheddar, but no so well with soft or pungent cheeses, the exception being goat cheeses.
Finally, there are the prestige cuvees, the highest quality tier, the royalty of the champagne world, much older vintage versions typically made from the best grapes. Since these are considered the flagship of their respective houses, they always have a unique name. Each great house has one and for Moët & Chandon it is Don Perignon; for Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmes d’Or; for Pol Roger, Sir Winston Churchill; for Louis Roederer, Cristal; and so on. These tend to be richer and work with richer foods, such as lobster or veal and especially anything containing truffles. Speaking of his company’s Palmes d’Or, Roffiaen said that the “Champagne’s umami also echoes the concentrated meat juices found in Asian cuisine, like Korean barbecue." In general, older champagnes, either prestige cuvees or other vintage bottles, work well with aged cheeses and can also go more easily with a wider array of heavier meats, poultry and seafood.
Larry Olmsted is a golf and travel writer, and a columnist for Forbes and USA Today.