Call My Bluff

'Pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial,’ quipped Oscar Wilde, who was partial to a glass or two. And while it is possible to have a cracking time without cracking open a bottle of fizz, there is no denying that Champagne brings a hedonistic froth to proceedings. It’s something that we Brits have long understood, being the thirstiest quaffers of bubbly after the French. bluffers.jpg

But for all that, we’re often stumped when it comes to knowing which style of Champagne to buy. This is especially true when dining out, where a plethora of styles (and prices) on wine lists can render the best of us giddy before we’ve touched a drop. To really impress that sommelier, and to gain maximum cred with wine-savvy friends, a few simple tips can help achieve maximum fizzical pleasure. The first thing to remember is that there is a style of Champagne to match every occasion.

Wine for all reasons

There is no better place to start than with non-vintage (NV). This is Champagne at its everyday best, skilfully blended from wines from several years to achieve a consistent ‘house’ style. Versatile, eminently drinkable and carrying the producer’s reputation, NV is like a little
black dress that can be dressed up or down for the occasion.
Non-vintage Champagnes range from lighter, more delicate wines, such as Perrier Jouët’s Grand Brut NV, perfect as an aperitif, to richer, more full-bodied numbers such as Ruinart NV, that will pair well with amuse-bouches and lighter starters. Think also in terms of summer- and winter-weight wines, of whether you’re in need of a frivolous cocktail party tipple or a more serious preprandial wine. Then ask your sommelier (or local wine shop) to recommend a fizz accordingly. From fish and chips to sushi, NV Champagne’s uplifting bubbles and vibrant acidity make for a great everyday food companion.

In the know

So far so good, but it’s time to step up a level. This is where the serious bluffer’s skill comes in handy and a little knowledge goes a long way.
The British have long had a taste for the richer, more evolved depths offered by vintage Champagne (see p.184 for more). The extra age of these single-vintage wines from the best years gives them the intensity to match meaty dishes. Often sublime with birds such as goose and duck (try a full-bodied Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon), a good vintage will take pork and crackling in its stride, and works as a decadent brunch reviver alongside a tricky dish such as eggs Benedict.

Meanwhile, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs are Champagnes made from either 100% white Chardonnay (blancs) or 100% red Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier (noirs), rather than the more usual blend of white and red grapes. A note - while made from red grapes, remember that blanc de noirs are actually white.

Blanc de blancs loves a piscatorial feast, the creamy seductiveness of the Chardonnay being a great partner to seafood (Salon, Taittinger, Pol Roger and Jacquart make elegant examples). Meanwhile, the red-fruit scented blanc de noirs can rise to the challenge of lean meats such as game birds and venison, along with hard cheeses.

Pinot Noir-based rosé Champagnes also boast subtle but firm character – plus that pretty pink colour which spells ‘romance’.They pair across a wide range of food, from scallops and lobster to meatier dishes – especially if you pick vintage rosé. Try the superb Billecart-Salmon or Gosset rosés.

Opposites attract

Next, two polar opposites superb for bookending a meal. The first is brut nature (or brut zero), born of a recent fashion for bone-dry Champagne, which sits well with bone-dry, often salty or tangy foods, such as caviar, shellfish, or East Asian cuisine. This dryness also works as a contrast to fatty textures like black pudding. Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut NV and Perle d'Ayala Nature Brut 2002 are superb examples.

In contrast you’ll also find sweeter, off-dry styles of Champagne, known as demi-sec. Try Jacquart’s fruity, medium-dry sweet style, which is perfect at the end of a meal, giving a gentle lift to drier desserts such as berry-laden dishes, cakes or lemony tarts.

Finally, topping the billing – and often in a stratospheric price league of their own – are the prestige cuvée wines. Complex, elegant, sublimely balanced yet sumptuous, these represent the best a Champagne house can produce and are ideal for special occasions. At this level it’s as much about appreciation of the house style as personal preference. Still, there’s much to choose from, with stand-out suggestions ranging from the classy depths of Krug’s single-vineyard Clos du Mesnil (a blanc de blancs) by way of the elegant toastiness of Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill to the finesse and precision of Louis Roederer’s Cristal and the much-fêted Dom Pérignon.

Above all, the best advice is to discuss options with your sommelier or local shop. Remember they are passionate about finding you the best wine to suit your budget, occasion and meal.

Be a fizz pro with our bluffer's guide to choosing Champagne. Just a few simple tips and you can impress that sommelier and achieve fizzical pleasure.

Call My Bluff

Be a fizz pro with our bluffer's guide to choosing Champagne. Just a few simple tips and you can impress that sommelier and achieve fizzical pleasure.