“Champagne, Champagne the wine divine, makes me forget my troubles. One dollar worth of wine. Four dollars’ worth of bubbles!” – Old English Champagne toast
It’s hard not to be captivated by the roiling fizz and sparkle of Champagne. Tiny bubbles rise through our glass and transport aromas reminiscent of freshly baked pastries, almonds, apples, and cream. And then, there is that first sip with the velvet mouthfeel and all those audacious bubbles bursting on our palates. It is no wonder it has been deemed the world’s most celebratory libation. It feels and tastes like a party in a bottle! There is the other, more pedestrian reason it has been reserved for special occasions: the cost. The high price of Champagne is not without merit. It takes an extraordinary amount of time, expertise, and effort to produce these exquisite wines in a region that is some of the world’s most valuable real estate. Yet, Champagne brings with it a hefty price tag for a bottle of bubbly wine that loses all that brilliant but expensive mousse within hours of opening. How many of us have started to reach into our cellars for a beautiful bottle of Champagne, only to pull back when we realize we may not be able to finish it that night? Instead, we opt for a still wine that feels “safer” to store should we fail to polish off the bottle. We worry about the cost, and moreover, the waste of something so special. This is tragic because, ironically, Champagne, with its myriad styles and various sweetness levels, is universally ideal when paired with virtually all foods. If one is ever at a loss for what to pair with a specific cuisine, Champagne is a no-brainer. We should all drink Champagne regularly, and pairing it with our meals should be commonplace.
Our concerns and second thoughts on whether to open our sparkling wines are about to be eliminated, as thankfully, we can now preserve Champagne’s delicious integrity with the 2021 unveiling of the Coravin Sparkling Wine Preservation System. The team at Coravin has developed a compact, convenient mechanism that preserves the crisp effervescence and flavors of sparkling wines for up to 4 weeks. At last, there is an effective way to preserve the sparkling wines we open and need to store for enjoyment days later. Coravin’s small, hand-held mechanism is sure to revolutionize the way we purchase and enjoy our Champagne. It is so effortless: once the Corvin Sparkling Stopper has been secured to the top of the bottle, CO2 is injected through a hand-held charger at the top of the stopper. There is a vacuum seal on the bottle as the CO2 fills the empty space within, thus preserving the remaining liquid. It is quick and easy, and it works! The team at Benchmark Wine had to give the new Corvin Sparkling Wine Preservation System a whirl. We discovered with glee that the lovely Charles Heidsieck 2006 Blanc des Millenaires Brut we opened one sunny afternoon was just as scintillating and fizzy when we opened the Coravin Sparkling Stopper a full two weeks later. Simply incredible!
Finally, we can open any bottle of sparkling wine or Champagne without hesitation. Whether it is a glass of bubbly while cooking dinner, Mimosas with Sunday brunch, or relaxing at the end of a long day – we don’t need to worry about finishing that expensive bottle of Champagne! Most of all, this opens the endless possibilities of more frequently pairing our Champagne with our cuisine du jour. So, let’s look at some of the more delicious Champagne pairings and explore why they work so well together and which foods should accompany the different Champagne styles. In essence, we need to address the only issue at hand . . . sugar.
Sugar’s Role in Champagne
The use of sugar is tantamount to the creation of various Champagne styles. It is most often used three times during production – firstly, to elevate the alcohol level during fermentation; secondly, to induce a subsequent fermentation which- along with some added yeast – creates the carbon dioxide (which creates the bubbles) in the bottle; and lastly to sweeten the wine with a final “dosage”, which is a mixture of concentrated grape must and sugar. The amount of sugar added at this time is what separates a brut, or very dry Champagne, from a doux or sweet Champagne. The Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes used in the production of Champagne are extremely acidic when harvested. This is because Champagne as a region, is very cool, and the grapes have difficulty fully ripening. The final addition of sugar mitigates the fierce acidity of Champagne, as well as adds a bit of body.
Before the mid-1800s, Champagne was invariably sweet, and only the ultra-wealthy could afford to drink it. Champagne was the preferred libation at Russia’s Imperial Court and contained more than 100 grams of sugar per liter, which is equivalent to the amount in dessert wine like Sauternes. We have the British to thank for today’s drier styles of Champagne. During the 1800s, there was a massive export market of Champagne to England. The English began to request from the Champagne producers wines that were not as sweet, as they preferred a more austere and refreshing style. The French complied, and in 1846, Perrier-Jouet introduced a wine that was made without any added sugar. Initially, critics called this wine too severe or “brute-like.” But over the next generation, this “brut” style with significantly less sugar than wines labeled “extra dry” became the fashion for Champagne. Today, it is the most popular style, and most of modern-day Champagne is made with very little or no dosage addition.
Currently, seven levels of sweetness must be indicated on the labels of Champagne:
– Brut nature: Bone dry, 0-3 grams of sugar per liter, with no additional dosage
– Extra Brut: Bone dry, 0-6 grams of sugar per liter
– Brut: Bone dry, 0-12 grams of sugar per liter
– Extra Dry: Dry, 12-17 grams of sugar per liter
– Dry: Off-dry, 17-32 grams of sugar per liter
– Demi-sec: Sweet, 32-50 grams of sugar per liter (Confusingly, sec, which means dry in
French, and extra-dry are both fairly sweet.)
– Doux: Very sweet, 50+ grams of sugar per liter
Why does reading the Champagne label matter? Well, besides the fact that some people prefer sweet, while others prefer dry; it is because when choosing your Champagne, you would be sorely disappointed to pair a sweet Doux labeled Champagne with a light fish dish, as the sugar and body weight of the wine will completely overtake the delicacy of this dish. On the other hand, choosing a sweeter style, such as a Demi-sec or Dry labeled Champagne, is culinary perfection when paired with spicey, aromatic dishes. The sweetness in these Champagnes counterbalances the ultra-spicey zip on the palate and serve as a complimentary juxtaposition to the heat. Whether your food is sweet, salty, fatty, or spicey, there is a Champagne-style to pair with it all.
Champagne Pairings Extraordinaire
Here are some of Champagne’s classic pairings – and some not-so-classic pairings that may surprise you:
Let’s start with the traditional – oysters, of course! Classic because it has always been, and continues to be a natural pairing choice with one of the drier Champagne styles. Try a Brut, as the tiniest amount of sugar compliments the briny flavor and supple texture of oysters. Other classics within this same vein are caviar, Dungeness crab, lobster, and fresh sashimi. We here at Benchmark Wine Group recommend a consummate Champagne classic, Bollinger Grand Annee 2005, with these traditional pairings.
Champagne Bollinger has never abandoned the age-old craft method of riddling and disgorging its vintage Champagnes by hand. This is a rarity in today’s mechanized world of wine production. The result is a Champagne that is always full-bodied, elegantly structured, aromatic, and with great finesse. There are the trademark golden apple and lemony-saline notes balanced with a fine honey note on the finish. Bollinger Champagne is the consummate versatile food companion.
In France, smoked salmon over buttered brown bread is a classic palate teaser at the start of a fine meal, and it is traditionally served with a not-too-sweet and not-too-dry Champagne. The salty, smokey flavor of the fish and its oily texture call for the sharp refreshment of a cold glass of Champagne bubbles. For those of us here in America, smoked salmon and cream cheese topped with salty, brine-laden capers on a bagel is made far more delectable when paired with an extra-brut or brut Champagne. The difference is in the cream cheese. Creamy, fatty foods demand the acidic intensity and sharp dryness of a Champagne with lower sugar content. This makes for an outstanding Sunday brunch! Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs 2008 is Benchmark Wine Group’s selection for accompanying smoked salmon dishes of all kinds.
This Blanc de Blanc vintage Champagne is 100% Chardonnay. It is normally produced for the Bordeaux-based Rothschild families to serve at events in their chateaus (Mouton, Lafite, and Clarke). Benchmark Wine Group is proud to be able to offer this Champagne to our clients as there is only a limited amount available outside the family circuit. This beautiful wine is full of textured minerality as well as crisp intensity. The fruit on the palate is full of ripe apples and a hint of toast. There is an outstanding balance of chalky notes full of fresh hazelnut, ripe citrus, and pale stone fruit. It can stand up to the fatty, oiliness of smoked salmon with its grippy, bone dry acidity and a long, robust finish.
Whether its potato chips or French fries, the fried-fatty and salted flavors of these favorite American staples are beautifully balanced alongside the crisp acidity of a dry Champagne. Pairing this combination together has the dangerously addictive effect of increasing the craving for more of each! Beware! For that matter, all fried foods are enhanced when paired with a Champagne that is a Brut or drier. Fried chicken, tempura, and fish n’ chips are all taken to new heights served alongside acidic and zesty bubbled Champagne. There are complementary flavors of bread and yeast, which highlight both sides of this paring. For the ultimate experience of this culinary combination, Benchmark Wine Group suggests you pair your next Big Mac and fries with Billecart Salmon Brut Nature NV.
By its very definition, brut nature Champagnes are just what they state: natural. By law, there can be no addition of sugar. What results is a Champagne that is a more precise and linear expression of the varieties used during production? In the case of the Billecart Salmon Brut Nature, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier were all used to create this sophisticated wine. While it is extremely dry, there is a crunchy-pear ripeness of the fruit that offers a balance to the crisp, green-apple texture on the palate. It is this same sharp texture that enables the perfect juxtaposition which cuts through the greasy feel of fried foods. This wine is racy with a taut structure. It unmistakably calls out for buttery, fatty food when it hits the palate. It creates a textural contrast of acid to the salty-fatty mouthfeel that is transportive!
Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
A perfect pumpkin pie on the palate is smooth, creamy, spicey, and just a tinge sweet. There is something hedonistic in the combination of ground cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves, all roiled into the dense puree of a gooey pumpkin filling and then baked into a buttery, browned pie crust. The sweetest part of this beloved autumn dessert should come from a generous dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream oozing over the top of your slice. To really get the most out of this Dionysian experience, pumpkin pie should be paired with a Champagne that is Brut or extra-dry. Forget the coffee after dinner! Champagne perfectly cuts through pumpkin pie’s condensed interior, and the pie crust is complimented by the toasty brioche and pastry notes of a great Champagne. The lush fattiness of the whipped cream is contrasted with the acidic mouthfeel of the Champagne. Don’t let this coming Thanksgiving holiday pass by without treating yourself to this outstanding dessert pairing.
Benchmark Wine Group recommends attending your next holiday meal with the De Venoge Louis XV Brut 2008. Presented in an exquisite Jeannie-shaped bottle, this Champagne instantly becomes the showstopping centerpiece of any dessert course. This Champagne is far more than just a pretty face. The De Venoge Louis XV Brut 2008 is a rare blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and, unexpectedly – Pinot Blanc. Explosively aromatic, it has a medium to full body of complexity. There are notes of apple, pear, citrus, florals, ginger, and honey. It has a spicey smokiness that counters the richness of fruit on the palate. The finish is languorous, and the mousse is fine. It takes pumpkin pie to new levels of delectability.
Lastly, the Do’s and the Do-Nots of Champagne
If you want to drink Champagne more frequently and with abandon, the first DO is to purchase a Coravin Sparkling Wine Preservation System. It will forever change your relationship to Champagne, and the two of you can stop being an “only at celebrations” kind of commitment. You’ll be able to open any sparkling wine bottle of any size (this includes larger format bottles) and drink as little as you like, knowing that it will still be there, ready to sparkle and shine for you for up to four weeks later.
Do make sure your Champagne is well chilled to between 7-11 degrees Celsius (44 to 51 degrees Fahrenheit. The Coravin Sparkling Stopper can be laid on its side or stand upright in the refrigerator. Warm Champagne loses its refreshing qualities and diminishes the zippy mouthfeel of the wine. Ensure that storage temperatures do not fluctuate, and never store your Champagne in areas with lots of light.
Don’t just drink Champagne for celebrations. Champagne is a celebration of winemaking artistry and French history. It should be savored with foods of all kinds. Try experimenting with Champagne and different pairings of all your favorite go-to meals and comfort foods. Also, try Champagne with the unexpected . . . Thai curries, Kaung-Pao chicken, or Asian spring rolls are
all elevated experiences when paired with the right sweetness level of Champagne. You will be astonished at Champagne’s culinary adaptability. Have fun with it, because now you can!