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Not just for celebrations, Champagne is a versatile drink that can be matched with a surprisingly large variety of food, as Fiona Beckett explains
There’s a famous quote from Lily Bollinger, talking about Champagne drinking. ‘I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.’
Clearly, she saw Champagne as the perfect drink for every mood and moment. What she failed to mention, however, was the type of food she’d eat with it – though I’m sure her view would have been that you could drink it with anything.
And she would have been right. Champagne is such a joyous, celebratory drink you can quaff it with pretty well everything, from popcorn to lobster. But you’ll get even more pleasure out of it if you choose a style to match the food.
The obvious stylistic divide is between younger ‘non-vintage’ (or NV) Champagnes, blended from more than one harvest and typically about three years old, and vintage fizzes, which come from a single exceptional harvest and are usually around six years old. As a general rule, NVs are lighter and match delicate dishes, while vintage Champagnes are richer and demand more complex food.
But that rule doesn’t always apply, as different Champagne producers have different house styles. Some are light, such as Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger, while others are much richer, the likes of Bollinger, Roederer and Gosset. These producers’ NV Champagnes can easily accompany main course dishes such as roast chicken or rack of lamb.
And when it comes to vintage and prestige cuvées, price obviously plays a part. If you’ve paid more than £100 for a bottle, you’ll want to drink it with luxury ingredients such as lobster or truffles. My new favourite pairing for Champagne is sea urchins – fabulous with a 1995 vintage of Moët & Chandon.
You find the same range of options with rosé. Light NV rosés make delicious drinking with creamy brie or fresh berry desserts. More full-bodied styles can handle red meat, including rare roast beef and lamb, as well as intensely flavoured game such as pigeon. Dom Pérignon’s 2000 rosé makes a great match with spicy, Moroccan-inspired dishes.
'It’s such a joyous drink you can quaff it with everything, from popcorn to lobster'
Another factor to consider is the sweetness of the Champagne. Most are sweetened by a wine and sugar solution called liqueur d’expédition in a process called dosage. But it’s increasingly popular to have low or non-dosage Champagnes, which are absolutely bone dry, making them an ideal match for clean-tasting, raw seafood such as oysters. Pioneers in this field were Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut and Drappier Brut Nature, but the new Pol Roger Pure Brutis also impressive.
By contrast, sweeter Champagnes – labelled sec, demi-sec or doux – can be brought into play not only with desserts but also with spicy and savoury dishes such as foie gras, which naturally pair with sweet wines.
Look out for Champagnes labelled ‘rich’ rather than ‘demi-sec’ (both Roederer and Pol Roger make them) and keep the spicing subtle rather than hot – ginger is a spice that has a particular affinity with Champagne.
'Sweet Champagne can be brought into play not only with desserts but also spicy and savoury dishes'
Aside from these general rules, experimentation can reap rewards. Dishes that work well with a light beer often work with Champagne, because of its palate-cleansing bubbles. It’s not 100% foolproof – I’d never serve a ploughman’s lunch with Champagne. But anything crumbed or crispy, especially fish and chips, works surprisingly well, as do fatty foods such as pork belly or spicy street snacks such as bhajis or pakoras. The same goes for anything umami – the Japanese term for the savoury taste in aged Parmesan cheese and seared or roast shellfish.
One current trend is to match Champagne with more substantial food. Among the possibilities are, believe it or not, pies – a combination inspired by novelist Jeffrey Archer’s famous Krug and shepherd’s pie parties.
I road-tested the combination successfully with a ham and pea pie, with the less expensive but very appealing Besserat de Bellefon.
Finally, Champagne can also be served at the end of a meal, even with chocolate. ‘Not a lot of people think of it as an after-dinner drink, but it goes well,’ says award-winning sommelier Heather McKnight, from The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. ‘It’s refreshing, but it also feels quite luxurious.’
And I’m sure Madame Bollinger would have approved of that…
Xavier Rousset, Texture
‘One of my favourite combinations is a starter of Scottish scallop and Cornish crab with coconut and lime leaf, paired with Ayala Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2002. Or, for a main course, Icelandic cod with chorizo and cod brandade with Charles Heidsieck Rosé 1999.’
Fred Brugues, Sketch
‘I pair Challans duck – a dish perfumed with cinnamon and served sliced with a cinnamon and foie gras sauce – with Bollinger Rosé Grande Année 1999. This is a pretty Champagne that offers terrific balance with its expansive, sweet core of fruit and expressive aromatics.’
Azedine Dhaheri, Hibiscus
‘I’d recommend a gratin of wild strawberries and matcha tea with vanilla sabayon, Italian shortbread and clotted-cream ice cream, served with Alain Thiénot Cuvée Garance Blanc de Rouges 2002 – one of the best new cuvées I’ve tried this year.’