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Champagne has real potential with traditional European cuisine, whether fish, meat or veg. Natasha Hughes goes in search of the best matches
There can’t be a soul working in the
wine trade who hasn’t, at some point or another, had to suffer through the earnest but misguided attempts of a Champenois to prove that his wine can take on red meat or game.
While most sensible people draw the line at attempting to partner champagne to a haunch of venison or a lamb chop, we often forget that these wines aren’t just aperitifs and, while they may not be able to take on full-flavoured meats, they are remarkably adaptable food wines.
Part of this adaptability comes down to the fact that there is no such thing as ‘just’ champagne. Champagne, as we all know, comes in many guises – from crisp, light non-vintage fizz to the earthy, honeyed notes of an aged vintage wine. And, although flavour has a significant part to play in creating great matches with champagne, texture and weight is just as important: a rich, round, Pinot-based wine has an entirely different dynamic to one based on zesty Chardonnay.
Another factor to bear in mind is temperature: if champagne is served too cold its acidity can appear aggressive and its flavours muted; if served too warm it can appear to lack focus. As a rule of thumb, richer champagnes, particularly aged vintage champagnes, should be served three or four degrees higher in temperature than crisper NV-style wines. Failure to observe these basic precepts can alter the balance of your carefully thought-out pairings.
Non-vintage champagnes make ideal partners for light spring dishes based on green vegetables, salads or delicate, zesty cheeses, particularly goats’ cheeses. The acidity of the wine will help it cope with the sharpness of salad dressings and the creamy texture of the cheese, while its lightness of body reflects the fresh flavours of tender spring vegetables.
As a general rule, blanc de blancs wines, while still relatively delicate in nature, have more depth and complexity to them than non-vintage wines. Try matching lighter versions to a salmon or mackerel tartare or a Dover sole, or use the acidity of the wine to cut through cream-based sauces. Richer styles can cope with richer foods, of course: dishes based on shellfish and chicken are ideal matches for more powerful blanc de blancs, and these wines make exemplary partners for fish such as sea bass, bream or John Dory, particularly if you perfume the flesh with aromatic herbs and a drizzle of olive oil.
The deeper flavours of blanc de noirs champagnes cry out for cosy autumnal comfort food and rich textures. An earthy dish of pheasant with chestnuts and wild rice could be just the ticket, as could rich fish-based dishes such as fried red mullet served with provençal vegetables. A version with relatively high acidity could also make a great match for smoked eel served with an apple and beetroot salad.
Rosé champagnes, like their still counterparts, have the verve and potency to handle spicy or intensely flavoured foods. Try a bottle with a dish of quail marinated in ras-el-hanout or red mullet with smoky aubergines. Alternatively, partner pink fizz with a simple dish of seared tuna perfumed with cracked black pepper.
Younger vintage champagnes (and, quite possibly, richer non-vintage wines) can handle meatier dishes, although for most observers they still can’t go the full nine yards with red meat, whatever the Champenois try to tell you.
But chicken, veal and pork are all grist to the vintage mill, as are intense herbal or even earthy flavours. They can also give surprising results with dishes cooked or served in tomato sauces, matching the intensity of flavours with their own depth while maintaining enough freshness to stand up to the acidity of the tomatoes.
With age, the flavour profile of a vintage champagne changes to one redolent of mushrooms and honey. Furthermore, the bubbles become more integrated into the body of the wine, creating a smoother, silkier texture. This is your opportunity to bring on the big guns: creamy lobster thermidor is not a dish for the faint-hearted, but a good vintage champagne has exactly what it takes to power through the rich sauce and the sweet meat of the shellfish.
Those earthy, mushroomy flavours can be brought out by teaming the wine with a classic dish of poulet en demi-deuil (chicken studded with slices of truffle beneath the skin) or save the truffles for a creamy sauce to pour over the chicken. Either way, an aged vintage champagne is one of the few wines with the power, depth and complexity to partner these flavours.
Or you could take an alternative approach and highlight the complexity of the wine by pairing it with the simplest of flavours – for example, homemade anchovy paste served on sourdough toast can be an absolute revelation when matched with vintage fizz.
And don’t forget the cheese platter: depending on the style of vintage, Comté, Ossau-Iraty and Charolais all deserve a place alongside a glass of great champagne.
Five top sommeliers share their perfect fizz and food matches, clockwise from top centre.
‘I love Taittinger’s blanc de blancs paired with poulet de Bresse with chopped mushrooms under the skin, which we serve with slightly meaty fondant potatoes. It’s a very delicate dish and the champagne has the right balance of finesse with a hint of richness. Flavour is important but it’s the texture that’s crucial, and here the champagne seems to enhance the silky texture of the chicken.’
‘I particular enjoy Ruinart’s blanc de blancs with a dish of scallops served with a slice of crispy bacon and some
crushed peas. The sensual creaminess of the Ruinart doesn’t overpower the dish, yet since the scallops and bacon are quite rich together, it has the strength and elegance to stand up to the robust flavours.’
‘My favourite match is a tempura of line-caught sole, asparagus spaghetti and green curry of cucumbers with Tour d’Argent “Cuvée Cathelin” 1996. This grand cru Chardonnay, with its complex toasty aromas and its vibrant, crunchy acidity, goes perfectly with the crisp, spicy fillets of sole.’
‘We do a dish of mackerel with rhubarb sauce and I recently tried it with a bottle of Pol Roger Rosé 1996, which proved a lovely match. Although the champagne was starting to develop real richness, it had enough acidity to cut through the oiliness of the fish, while the rich berry flavours worked harmoniously with the rhubarb. It was a really refreshing match.
One of Claude’s dishes I love is garriguette strawberries with an olive oil parfait. I team it with a non-vintage demi-sec from Michel Arnould, a small producer. I’m not 100% convinced about dry rosés with strawberries, but this wine has just enough sweetness to work, especially as the savoury quality of the olive oil parfait ensured that the dish wasn’t quite as sweet as if we had used more conventional cream instead.’
‘I like to match Bollinger Grande Année 1999 with a dish of roasted Limousin veal, with a little jus and some girolle mushrooms and potato purée. The mushroomy flavours of the wine come through on the palate and the champagne matches the delicate meat beautifully. The wine stands up to the dish without overwhelming or becoming overwhelmed.’