The French way with sparkling wine
Written by Jane F. Garvey
Photo by Dennis McDaniel
There is, perhaps, no better excuse to drink Champagne than the one offered by Coco Chanel: “I only drink Champagne on two occasions: when I am in love and when I am not.”
I drink it when I have good caviar and when I don’t. When I have fried chicken to pair with it or chicken soup. I drink it because I like it, and no other reason really is needed.
Not all bubbles are Champagne. So what exactly is Champagne?
Now protected as a brand by international law, Champagne references both the contents of a bottle of wine and a region. Lying slightly under 100 miles northeast of Paris, the Champagne region has been making wine since the Romans rolled around these hills. Champagne the wine is typically made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes, although four others also are authorized. The grapes are picked earlier than they would be for a still wine, when sugars are still low but acidity is high, to ensure a crisp, vibrant result. And also as a result of lower sugars, alcohol in Champagne is moderate, about 12 percent. Other countries have agreed not to use the term “Champagne” or “Champagne method” on bottles of bubbly wine, although in America some brands (notably Korbel) are “grandfathered.”
It’s possible to spend several hundred dollars on vintage Champagne and more than $100 on some of the better nonvintage wines, such as Krug, but one can find excellent examples at more wallet-worthy prices. Expect to pay around $45 at least for a bottle of good nonvintage Champagne.
There are also alternatives to Champagne that still put bubbles in the glass and a smile on the lips while leaving a bit more money in the wallet. Outside of the Champagne region, other French sparkling wine often – but not always – is called “Crémant.” The term used to mean “creamy,” but now it has a new definition since “Champagne” today is limited in use. Eight appellations in France (and one outside of France) produce sparkling wine that may be designated “Crémant.” In this market you’re most likely to find Crémant from Alsace, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Bordeaux.
In addition, there are several kinds of sparkling wine that have their own appellations. One that you’ll find in this market is Blanquette de Limoux, made from the Mauzac grape, known locally as Blanquette. Vouvray makes both still and sparkling wines from Chenin Blanc, and although in the Loire Valley, it’s not called “Crémant de Loire.”
And there is sparkling wine from Saumur, also in the Loire Valley, that isn’t labeled “Crémant.” One example, Bouvet Brut, owned by Taittinger, is made mostly from Chenin Blanc, and it’s available in this market (about $18). Crisp, clean and delicate, it’s quite a good value. Try it with lightly salted potato chips and good old French onion dip or duck-fat French fries with homemade mayonnaise for dipping. Bouvet Brut Rosé, made from Cabernet Franc, is another good value. Either will pair well with that fried chicken. Bouvet also does a fine vintage Crémant in both brut and rosé, but these less expensive sparklers bear a Saumur appellation.
Among Crémants, I always enjoy the Lucien Albrecht brut and brut rosé from Alsace ($22). Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling are the grapes in the brut, while the brut rosé is entirely made from Pinot Noir. The heady aromas and flavors focus on red fruits, and I love its crisp acidity, long finish, and silky texture. I would bet on it with barbecued or fried chicken, and Creole barbecued shrimp.
New to this market is a very fine Crémant de Bourgogne from the Seigneurie de Montigny, (mid $20s) available both as a brut – a good choice with shellfish, sushi and goat cheese – and a brut rosé, which would be terrific with wings, teriyaki, pintos, and grilled salmon.
But Champagne is the top of the pile in sparkling wine, and its price reflects that fact. Expect to pay at least $40-$70 a bottle for a good one, and of course, you can spend way more than that.
I like the full-bodied Pierre Péters ($60), which is very steak-worthy, and Gaston Chiquet. The nonvintage Gaston Chiquet Cuvée Tradition Brut ($50) was served at the 2013 Nobel banquet. With this one, you might want to step up to a rich chicken pie or even a classic chicken and dumplings – the American answer to the French poulet Bonne Femme. These are “grower Champagnes,” meaning the grapes for the wines were grown on the producer’s estate. A small grower Champagne new to this market is Champagne Piollot (about $40), an extraordinary value that impressed me with its toasty, honey, lemon complexity.
A négociant Champagne – one that uses grapes from a variety of source, its own and/or others – that is a strong personal favorite is Billecart-Salmon. The Brut Reserve (about $60) is excellent, but my heart belongs to the rosé (about $85).
At around $40, the H. Blin nonvintage is a fine product from a small operation. Two other good choices come from Champagne Devaux. The Grand Reserve Brut would be a lovely choice with the classic French chicken in cream sauce (poulet à la crème). The Cuvée D Brut from the same house (about $60) also is a Pinot Noir Chardonnay blend, but from first press juice from grapes grown in selected vineyards. Try this with simple grilled dry pack scallops or crab legs with drawn butter.
While many of the great labels cost well over $100 a bottle, a Grand Cru Champagne can be obtained for reasonable money: Champagne Le Mesnil for around $55 was superb with a stuffed roast chicken, and the 2005 vintage Le Mesnil Prestige Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru goes for around $70. This one pairs very well with smoked salmon, crab dip with crudités, creamy cheeses, and páté. Although the 2005 vintage in Champagne was not one of the best of recent years, this one delivers a lot of pleasure with its crisp finish and balanced complexity.
Recent vintages of worth in Champagne include 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2012. The 2001 and 2003 were the weakest of the century so far, the latter especially because of the record-breaking heat.
When it comes to serving bubbles with food, it’s time to break a few rules. First, ditch the flutes. They cramp the aromas and flavors of Champagne and fine sparkling wines. Use a good white wine glass instead. You’ll be amazed at the difference. Also, serve Champagne around 55 degrees, not the usually recommended 45 degrees.It will deliver more aroma and flavor yet still be refreshing. As with other white wines, Champagnes will open in the glass as they aerate and warm up if you give them some room to work.
Experiment fearlessly with pairings. Long ago, a friend told me about boiled peanuts and really good Champagne. He was so right, but with a brut Blanc de Blancs, not a rosé. Try a brut rosé with barbecue, but make sure the sauce is neither too sweet nor too spicy. Try Champagne and creamy, rich cheeses.
Be careful, though, with Champagne and caviar, always thought to be traditional. For this to work, the Champagne must be steely crisp, not rich or yeasty. When in doubt, serve plain icy vodka with caviar and save the Champagne for something else. The nonvintage Ruinart was excellent with salmon caviar (ikura), and would pair well with all sorts of sushi.
Don’t pair a brut with desserts; the sweetness of the dessert will clash with the wine. With dessert – especially custards or puddings—use a demi-sec or doux. Chilled poached fruit also is good with a sweeter Champagne. Veuve Cliquot Demi-Sec ($60), the Moët et Chandon Nectar Imperial ($47) and the Piper-Heidsick Cuvée Sublime ($50) all are good demi-sec selections that are available in Atlanta.
So here’s to Champagne and fried chicken, to Champagne and love, and, well, just to Champagne. Cheers!
- Jane F. Garvey is a writer and wine instructor living in Atlanta. She holds the Certified Specialist of Wine credential and has written and taught about wine for more than 20 years.
Bubbles and boiled peanuts?
Ditch the worn out idea of Champagne and caviar. Turns out, it pairs wonderfully with familiar Southern staples, like fried chicken and barbecue. Read more about these fearless pairings, then turn to page 32 where Rebecca Lang shares her take on this unexpected duo from her newest cookbook, Fried Chicken.