By Sarah Heller
December 25, 2020
Food and wine pairing may not be new, but for the truly wine-dedicated, we’re continuing our series covering food and wine matching from a wine-first perspective––just in time for the festive season, next up is champagne
Ironically enough for a wine normally relegated to cocktail receptions and aperitifs, champagne is arguably the single most versatile wine style for pairing with food. Its energising acidity and bubbles, feather weight and––traditionally––mollifying dash of sugar all make it the palate cleanser par excellence. However, with its burgeoning stylistic diversity, champagne is also an increasingly apt match for dishes well outside the usual “oysters and caviar” ambit.
As the Champenois and their acolytes will incessantly remind you, “Champagne is only from Champagne!” This means that any wine made outside France’s chilly northernmost wine region, even if made from the same grape varieties (mainly chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier aka meunier) using the same method (méthode champenoise: a second fermentation in bottles followed by 15+ months’ ageing on the “lees” or dead yeast cells), is not entitled to use the “C” name in any shape or form, including the name for the method (outside Champagne, it can only be called the “traditional method”).
In fairness, the Champagne region has been making this wine style for centuries; Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house still in business, first hung out its shingle in 1729. The region also has a particular aptitude for producing this delicate, subtly flavoured style of sparkling wine. Its climate––with low but stable levels of both sunlight and rainfall; soils––generally alkaline, varying from chalk to heavy marls; and variegated patchwork of hilly sites allow these early-ripening grapes to mature gradually, reaching flavour maturity at low levels of alcohol while maintaining their acidity.
The former point is critical because the second fermentation––achieved by adding sugar and yeasts to a fully fermented base wine––contributes an additional 1.5 degrees of alcohol, which would make for a clumsy wine indeed if instead of 11% the base wines were to clock in at 13% or even 14% (not so unusual for pinot noir and chardonnay grown in warmer climates). Today fresh acidity is especially coveted as the warming climate makes it vital to keep the wines in balance. However, that tartness was once considered overbearing, hence the traditional practice of adding small amounts of sugar syrup (dosage) during dégorgement (the removal of the lees from the bottle after ageing is complete).
The variety of champagne styles can be plotted on various axes: the grapes used, the handling of base wines, the time spent ageing on lees, sweetness levels, etc.
Unusually for a white wine, the grapes in champagne are both dark-skinned (pinot noir and meunier) and light-skinned (chardonnay). Shifting the balance of grapes in the blend or even eliminating some entirely can dramatically impact the style. Blanc de blancs, typically 100% chardonnay, are the leanest, most acidic and usually slowest-maturing champagnes; less serious versions are handy “cocktail wines” or “seafood wines.” Blanc de noirs, made from some combination of pinot noir and meunier, are characteristically dark-fruited, structured and rich if pinot noir-dominant or soft, rounded and fruit-plump if meunier-dominant. As a result, either works well with traditional red wine pairings like red meat or even game.
Rosé is made either by blending some red wine––usually made with pinot noir––into a white base (blended rosé) or by leaving the harvested grapes in contact with their skins for 24+ hours to leach out some colour (saignée). Though long dismissed by serious “bubble heads” as frivolous (despite its typically high price tag), rosé is truly coming into its own as a collectible and also a food pairing wine. Saignée especially, with its richer, fruitier flavours, provides ample scope for pairing with “exotic,” spice-driven cuisines.
Meanwhile, the handling of base wines before the second fermentation in bottle drives much of the difference in style between houses. Some––such as Lanson––prevent the so-called malolactic fermentation (a biological conversion of the harsh malic acid in grapes into softer lactic acid) to retain a more marked freshness. Some houses are adamantly opposed to the use of oak vessels for fermentation or ageing e.g. Delamotte, with wines that are pure and understated; while others embrace it e.g. Krug, which is luxuriantly baroque and spicy.
Ageing time on lees meanwhile has become a serious arena for one-upping. Established houses have used their generous capital reserves to exaggerate this point of distinction between themselves and growers (smaller producers who grow and produce champagnes from start to finish). While 15 months on lees is the technical minimum for non-vintage champagne, many houses will push this to several years and up to a decade for vintage or other prestige cuvées. The longer the time on lees the more notes of baked goods such as biscuit, toast or brioche but also the silkier and more voluminous the palate, making the wines more appropriate for lushly textural dishes.
Finally, there is the question of sweetness. It is both an important factor on its own and as a signifier of how ripe the wine is likely to be: a winemaker who knows that her wine is sufficiently ripe is more likely to be comfortable releasing it without any added sugar (labelled Brut Nature or Zéro Dosage). Drier wines are increasingly common among growers. Typical sugar levels today for drier champagnes are around 3-6g/L (labelled Extra Brut) e.g. Laurent Perrier, which uses its own term Ultra Brut. These are the most versatile choice for most savoury meals. However, many popular champagnes are still Brut level (12g/L or less) e.g. Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, etc. which makes them a good option for many Asian dishes that use sugar in their sauces.
One classic Asian food and wine conundrum is what to pair with a sushi meal. The biggest challenge is probably the vinegary sushi rice, which will tip any wine unsure of its acid balance into flabby territory. Add wasabi, pickled ginger and soy sauce and most wines will be fleeing for the safer pastures of a nice meat and three veg combo.
Keeping your meal focused on sashimi, which has fewer complicating factors, and choosing a drier blanc de blancs without any new oak handling gives your wine a better chance of proving clean, linear and incisive enough to hold its own.
This cold season favourite and paella of southern China is not the first thing you’d think of to serve with bubbles, but hold your judgment. The crackling texture of burnt rice and indulgent, sweet meaty flavours of lap cheong and pork belly scream out for a refreshing contrast. However, too light a champagne might get lost or come off as shrill.
Hence a blanc de noirs, either meunier or pinot noir-driven and with a moderate level of dosage (say 6g/L), will have just the right amount of juice and earthy savour to carry you through.
I love roasted meats as much as the next person, but I will happily make a meal out of a selection of flatbreads and dips, salads and fritters, all generously doused with spices and lemon juice. This does not typically make for an easy wine match, but this is where rosé champagne (especially saignée) can create a great bridge between dishes.
As long as it is acidic enough that the lemon juice won’t flatten it and flavourful enough that it won’t just disappear, rosé champagne would be my choice for either a vegetarian or a meat-based selection. Even one with a bit of spiciness from oak handling would not go amiss.