During an interview last year, some great advice hit me on the nose like bubbles shooting out of a flute of Krug. I had asked Mario Ortiz, general manager of The Firehouse Restaurant, about ordering wines with dinner. His reply: “If you can’t decide on white or red, Champagne is always the right answer.”
I could have kissed him. His well-chosen words mirror my own personal philosophy (all bubbles, all the time) and provide guidance to wine amateurs and adepts alike. After years of writing about wine, I still can’t come up with a more instructive sentence. Allow me to use my lesser skills to explain how Champagne transcends special occasions and performs like a champ with food.
What makes Champagne the perfect guest at the dinner table, congenial with any partner, yet always entertainingly piquant? Balance. Acid balance, which every wine needs in order to be food-friendly, refreshes like just-squeezed lemonade on a hot day. Sparkling wines, particularly Champagne, are made with this bright balance in mind.
Alcohol, weighty and hot on the palate, also is balanced in sparkling wines. Champagne is, of course, named for the place where it’s made—a region in France that has fermented, bottle by heavy bottle, the world’s most prestigious sparkling wines for hundreds of years. Made in a complex and expensive process, the wine has long been associated with special occasions. But public opinion is changing. Restaurants and wine bars are stocking longer, deeper lists, including vintage Champagnes as well as their bubbly cousins from around the world. (Many, too, feature ultra-premium labels by the glass.)
Do I really think Champagne is always right? To paraphrase Lily Bollinger, only when I’m happy or sad or thirsty or with friends. After I judge a couple hundred wines at a competition, Champagne is the only drink I desire for days. And I especially love it when I’m hungry, no matter what’s on the menu. What if we’re hanging at Chops? Wouldn’t I rather have a big red with my steak? Maybe. But if a glass of Duval-Leroy were placed in front of me, I’d say the hell with the steak, I’ve got Champagne. And that’s my final answer.
Pairing Champagne With Food
Blanc de blancs, made from white grapes, is the lightest, most delicate Champagne. Slurp it with oysters, sole grenobloise or veal in cream sauce. (Does anyone eat that anymore?) Blanc de noirs, made from red grapes, is the Olympic gymnast of bubbles, strong and flexible with roasts and braises. Rosé is especially nice with savory meats such as duck and lamb and the aromatic herbs used in their preparation.
Dry or Sweet?
A fun Champagne word to remember is dosage (sounds like “corsage”). Dosage is the correcting mixture of wine and sugar added to Champagne just before bottling. The sweeter the dosage, the sweeter the Champagne.
The driest sparkling wines are labeled natural, extra brut or non-doseé. Korbel makes a tasty and affordable example of natural that provides a light, zippy start to an evening.
Most Champagnes and new-world bubblies are labeled brut, a dosage level with just enough sugar to balance out the high acidity. This nonsweet high-wire act is the most versatile with food.
Extra dry, sec and demi-sec Champagnes are on the sweet side. The terms can be confusing, since we learned in French 101 that sec means “dry.” But it makes sense if you think of this style as “off-dry” or “only a little dry.” Demi-sec bubbles enhance Asian cuisine (think Thai curries and Chinese seafood), as well as foie gras in its many sinful forms.
Full-bore dessert Champagne will be labeled doux. Its sweet complexity is lovely with shortbread or a hazelnut tart, but it stars in its own right with soft cheeses and crackers.
The Umami Connection
Aged Champagne has more of the savory, earthy flavor that food scientists call umami, and it enhances foods with strong umami content, such as aged Parmesan and pecorino, wild mushrooms, truffles, soy sauce and smoked foods. So if you’re ordering risotto with chanterelles and shaved Grana Padano, and your date wants the miso-glazed black bass, complement your meal with a 1996 or older vintage.
Elaine’s Pick of the Month: Midtown’s Lounge on 20 serves about 30 sparkling wines by the glass or split. Don’t let the hipness of the place scare you. Just dive into the bubble bath.
Lounge on 20, MARRS building, 1050 20th St., Suite 100, Sacramento; (916) 443-6620; loungeon20.com Lounge on 20, MARRS building, 1050 20th St., Suite 100, Sacramento; (916) 443-6620; loungeon20.com