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We regularly pop a cork as a pre-prandial treat, but Champagne also makes a great partner for many foods. Fiona Beckett provides some pointers
Champagne’s popularity as an aperitif is no accident: it perks up the palate and stimulates the appetite for the meal ahead. But it is a much more versatile accompaniment for food than it is generally given credit.
The lightness and delicacy of the wine and the playfulness of the bubbles help Champagne succeed with food where a still wine would not.
The classic combination – as a partner to caviar – is a marriage of textures, as airy bubbles meet the delicate eggs. The same logic applies to featherlight souffles, airy meringues and fragile, wobbly jellies.
Equally Champagne won’t overwhelm lightly cooked or steamed food or raw food such as salads or sushi.
Its bubbles, meanwhile, can act as a palate cleanser, livening up the smooth texture of creamy sauces and providing a refreshing contrast to deep-fried foods and crispy canapes.
Flavourwise, too, there are striking affinities. Lighter styles of Champagne cope perfectly with the saltiness of fresh seafood and the sharpness of fresh fruit, such as raspberries and rhubarb. Indeed, Champagne is about the only dry wine you can successfully drink with dessert.
The yeastiness and toastiness of richer styles work perfectly with the savoury, umami flavours of roast poultry, mushrooms and seared food such as scallops.
To get the best out of Champagne, it helps to appreciate the contrasting styles, even within a category such as non-vintage. If you were to buy a standard supermarket non-vintage Champagne, you’d hope to get a pleasant drink that would go with cocktail nibbles or with a brunch dish, such as scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.
But with a more full-bodied Champagne – Bollinger or Louis Roederer, say – you’d find the wine would stand up to richer dishes, such as chicken with a creamy mushroom sauce or grilled lobster.
It’s a similar situation with lighter, all-Chardonnay Champagnes (blanc de blancs) and ones that are made only from the dark-skinned grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs). A blanc de blancs will be particularly good with lightly cooked fish, shellfish and chicken, while a blanc de noirs can take on more robust ingredients and sauces.
When it comes to vintage Champagne, the ideal match depends on the quality of the year the grapes were harvested and the age of the wine. A recent vintage, such as 2000 or 2002, tends to go with similar foods to a full-bodied non-vintage. A wine from an older, classic vintage, such as a 1996, needs more careful handling and is better with simple foods.
At an extraordinary lunch I attended at the Blueprint Cafe a few years ago to celebrate the new millennium, a 26-year-old Bollinger 1973 was served with nothing more than some deep-fried gougeres oozing with warm Lancashire cheese. They set it off to perfection.
Just to make matters more complicated, every house has its own style. Dom Perignon is intensely pure and fresh-tasting, which makes it an especially good partner for Japanese and modern Asian food.
By contrast, you could drink the much richer Krug with a roast, a steak or, as Jeffrey Archer once famously did, with shepherd’s pie.
A Champagne that doesn’t have any dosage (the sweet liquor that is added at the end of the bottling process) is particularly good with foods such as steamed and lightly grilled fish and vegetables, whose delicate taste and texture you want to preserve. Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut and Drappier Nature are two good examples.
Sweeter Champagnes are designed to be served primarily with desserts and gateaux. However, in the case of the rich styles, such as those made by Pol Roger and Louis Roederer, they can also be drunk successfully with spicy food and rich pates, such as foie gras terrines.
Last but not least, there’s the increasingly popular rose Champagne, which most people drink with similar foods to ordinary Champagne.
My view is that they can be more enjoyably matched with foods that go well with berry flavours, so I favour meaty fish, such as seared salmon and tuna, as well as grilled chicken, seared or smoked duck and cold roast beef or lamb. They are also good with desserts that include fresh raspberries or strawberries. Vintage rose can even take on red meats such as beef or lamb and game, when served rare.
If all this sounds too complicated, a simple rule of thumb is to be guided by the time of year: light Champagnes for summery foods, richer, more robust Champagnes in the autumn and winter. All of which means you have to get into a year-round Champagne habit, I’m afraid. What a chore!