Vive le Champagne
Too often we look at Champagne not as a wine, but as an image. We pop the cork on New Year’s Eve, toast the bride and groom at the wedding reception, celebrate that special birthday or anniversary or spray it around the room after winning the Stanley Cup. It seems that most people match the bubble to an occasion and food is an afterthought … if at all.
Even industry professionals disagree with respect to Champagne’s affinity for food. But those that do not believe in its ability to “mimic” a table wine are drinking inside the box. The king of sparkling wines is produced in a multitude of styles, weights and with a huge diversity of flavour profiles. This variety of styles allows for its versatility when pairing with food. And the bubbles don’t limit Champagne’s affinity for food, they enhance it by allowing the wine to match with certain dishes for which a regular table wine might not be suited.
What better way to confirm and study further Champagne’s marriage with food than going to the source? The historic town of Reims, with architectural wonders that miraculously survived the ravages of the world wars, is located in the heart of the Champagne region. Here we endeavoured to drink and eat with as much variety as possible … and to determine how the locals do it. As it turns out, the fact that Champagne with food is a relatively new concept for the locals was the biggest revelation.
Course after mouth-watering course prepared by chef Laurent Laplaige paraded out of the kitchen, each paired with a different Champagne. The highlight was the Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé 1999 with the fillet of turbot and morel mushrooms. The finesse and subtlety of the cherry and strawberry flavours of the sparkler matched perfectly with the delicate, yet flavourful turbot, while the spice and earth played impeccably with the morels. Laplaige continued to wow us throughout the evening and, as we walked back to our hotel, I thought back to the extensive discussion we had had earlier in the day with Catherine Curie, Brand Ambassador for both Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more extensive, insightful or thought-provoking conversation about food and wine pairing as I had with Ms Curie. We tasted through the Piper and Charles Heidsieck portfolios, brainstorming food pairings and situations along the way.
The fresh and delicately floral Piper-Heidsieck Brut with its juicy crisp pear and apple flavours, hint of fresh-baked baguette on the nose, and clean fresh finish would work well with oysters, scallop carpaccio and simple fresh seafood hors d’œuvres at a hip cocktail party.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve MEC 2004 with its greater complexity, intensely floral nose with apricots and yeasty (brioche with butter) notes, and full-bodied palate would be more suited to Gillardeau oysters (complex with nutty flavours) and seafood with creamy sauces (as we experienced at Le Millénaire). We agreed that this Champagne was more “small, intimate group” while the Piper was more “raucous party around the swimming pool.”
The off-dry Piper-Heidsieck Demi-Sec was the ideal “cup of tea” with a macaroon in the afternoon, while the fun and festive Rosé Sauvage’s citrus, tangerine, pink grapefruit nose and exuberant blood-orange flavour with hints of cinnamon would be delightful with BBQ lamb chops with Provençal herbs or a spicy steak tartare.
The muscular and powerful Charles Heidsieck Brut Vintage 2000 showed baked apricots, vanilla, hints of simmering strawberries, spice and light pastry with a creamy texture and brought sardines, pancetta, Shropshire blue cheese and beef carpaccio with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano to mind.
And the exquisite, unoaked, multi-layered Blanc des Millénaires Blanc de Blancs 1995 longed to be paired with pork tenderloin and truffles.
Famished, we successfully put the theory to practice during our feast at Le Millénaire.
There was no shortage of “Oh my god!” pairing revelations over the next several days. The lovely Alice Paillard (Bruno’s daughter) and I shared a decadent plate of Os à la Moelle au Gros Sel (roasted marrow bones with coarse salt) and agreed that, with the Bruno Paillard Rosé Premier Cuvée, this could easily be our choice for last meal on earth. The Paillards are huge advocates of pairing food with Champagne and have taken the concept to the next level by partnering with esteemed chef and restaurateur Joël Robuchon (named “Chef of the Century” by the Gault Millau guide in 1989) to hold monthly dinners pairing Robuchon’s creations with Paillard’s bubblies. Alice graciously invited us to attend one such dinner being held the following week in Paris. With a heavy heart we declined, as we would already be on a plane headed home.
Later that day we continued on to Veuve Cliquot’s stunning Manoir de Verzy in the rolling countryside just outside of Reims. Here we shared an unforgettable meal, prepared by the House’s chef, with winemaker Cyril Brun and Thomas Beraud-Sudreau, Business Development Manager for Canada and France in attendance. This was the dinner to be at for all the Champagne-and-food-pairing doubters, as anyone denying the wine’s ability to not only marry with but enhance the dishes is clearly taste-bud deficient or simply just being stubborn. There was no sense of “wow, it’s Champagne and the pairing works.” It was simply “Wow!”
But the most memorable meal we enjoyed was in the kitchen of Champagne Louis Roederer’s owner, Frédéric Rouzaud, in the company of Michel Janneau, its Directeur Général Adjoint. Yes, we enjoyed a simple but beautifully prepared lunch. Yes, we drank multiple vintages of Cristal and Brut Rosé. But we sat and talked about everything but business for the entire afternoon. This was the next level. The great food and Champagne, no … the great food with Champagne was not the focus, it was the norm. It was no longer a revelation, it was an expectation. The focus became what great food and wine do best — bring people together. And who can disagree with that?