AND THE ACCOUTREMENTS: CAVIAR, CIGARS AND CHOCOLATES
You have now entered the holiday zone. My condolences to you bah-humbugs out there, but look on the bright side! You can turn your attention to “hmm, what will I drink?” Maybe think about wines you don’t allow yourself most of the year. Indulge yourself. Now that you’ve gone that far in your thinking, why not taste a little caviar, light up a cigar and pop a truffle?
Whether you’re throwing a party, attending a soirée or hosting your family’s get-together on the key days, following are guidelines for making selections of these luxury libations on varying budgets.
Within the sparkling group, try to provide different sweetness levels for differing palates: at least one brut or ultra brut, one sec (sweet) or demi sec (very sweet). Consider a bubbly rosé, as well.
Suggestions from different price ranges:
Schramsberg Sparkling Wine, $30-$100/bottle. Serve in the style to which presidents and royalty have become accustomed when you offer the Schramsberg line to your guests. Since the 1960s, Schramsberg sparklers have been highlighted at presidential dinners and events held honoring world leaders, the queen of England and the Pope!
- Reserve, $70-$100. Complex and exotic flavors of autumn fruit with accents of toasted cinnamon and nutmeg. Drink now or for years to come.
- J. Schram Brut Rosé, approximately $100. Polished and rich with juicy raspberry and citrus flavors and a long, luxurious finish.
- Crémant (demi-sec), $30-$32. Aromas of kiwi and fresh-baked bread with flavors of tropical fruit and melon. Enough acid to balance its perfect sweetness.
Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, $30-$50/bottle. Treat your guests like stars: serve something from Piper-Heidsieck, the official champagne brand for both the Oscars and the Sundance Film Festival. Though not inexpensive, many can be purchased for under $50.
- Cuvée Brut, $30-$45. Pinot noir-based with small quantities of pinot meunier and chardonnay. Well-balanced, fresh and lively.
- Rosé Sauvage (brut), $38-$50. Still red wine mixed into the traditional brut recipe for a unique twist. Dark red and refreshing, while rich.
- Cuvée Sublime (demi-sec), $37-$40. Rich and crisp with strong undertones and a long, vanilla and cinnamon finish.
Gloria Ferrer Sparkling Wine, $20-$42/bottle. Enjoy bubbly from the first sparkling wine house in Carneros. The Ferrer family, also owners of cava house Freixenet, completed construction of the winery in 1986 with the intention that this product would reflect the authentic California terroir. The winemakers only employ three techniques used at Freixenet: the handpicking of grapes, carrying of grapes to the winery in small bins and gentle pressing of the fruit.
- Sonoma Brut, $20. Pinot noir- and chardonnay-based with traditional apple and pear flavors.
- Brut Rosé, $42. Pinot noir-based with lovely salmon color. Surprising flavors of strawberry and spicy cranberry.
- Blanc de Noirs, $20. Pinot noir-based with rosy hue due to small addition of vin gris. Aromas of strawberry and fresh roses, with creamy cherry, lemon and cola flavors on the palate.
Segura Viudas, $8-$21/bottle. This house produces Spanish cavas, or sparkling wines, shockingly good for their pricing. Segura Viudas is one of the top producers of these cavas and was recently named Winery of the Year by Wine & Spirits magazine.
- Heredad Reserve, $20-$21. Smooth, yeasty and slightly floral with pleasing complexity.
- Brut Rosé, $8-$11. Delicate, crisp, fresh and fruity with a light kiss of sweetness on the finish.
- ARIA Sparkling Pinot Noir, $9-$10. Made from 100% pinot noir, the character and structure of this sparkler echo the complexity of its temperamental grape. Dry and flavorful with a long finish.
Gallo Sparkling Wine, $3-$11/bottle. Not everyone knows that Gallo produces three lines of sparkling wines under different names. The reasonably-priced Tott’s is the most expensive of the three brands, also considered the premium. Ballatore Spumantes are sweeter and styled similarly to the Italian Asti Spumantes. André makes the least expensive line and is America’s best-selling sparkling wine.
- Tott’s Extra Dry, $5-$11. Light and refreshing with green apple and hints of citrus.
- Ballatore Gran Spumante, $6-$8. Aromas of peach and apricot with flavors of melon. Rich, balanced clean finish.
- André Cold Duck, $3-$5. Sweet, grapey and easy to drink. To be served well-chilled.
Ahh, champagne and caviar. The thought makes many of us swoon. The crisp acidity of a sparkling wine harmonizes with the subtle, salty flavors of caviar, and the opposing textures marry happily. Here’s my experience: little jewels popping in my mouth when I bite down, followed by lively, refreshing coolness; salty, fishy essence tamed by dry, smooth satisfaction.
If you are a novice to caviar, perhaps the smaller eggs will be less intimidating to sample. The Sevruga Sturgeon variety might be a good start, with its fresh, smooth taste and relatively small, black eggs, while the larger bright pink or golden eggs of the salmon roe may seem a little scary, however tasty they are.
DO serve caviar chilled or on ice.
DON’T add a squeeze of lemon—the acidity will overwhelm the delicate flavors of the caviar.
DO serve caviar with crème fraiche (cultured whole cream) on plain toast. The rich crème acts as a bridge for the caviar’s saltiness and the champagne’s fruitiness.
DON’T eat or prepare caviar with metal spoons—stainless steel or silver spoons can give caviar a metallic taste. DO use a mother-of-pearl, bone, enamel or even plastic spoon.
DO buy the freshest possible from quality online sources, using overnight delivery, if possible. Paramount Caviar offers premium quality, and pricing is commensurate. For a tight budget, sample the selections at Affordable Cavier, which will only ship its products via overnight delivery to ensure freshness. Fine Food International caviar, is touted as both high quality and a great caviar deal. Clearly, the price disparity among sellers for a particular caviar type is enormous, as can be seen from some of the examples below.
Following are several types of caviar with flavor profiles, and sparkling suggestions for some. These are not broken out by premium down to affordable, as what differentiates quality is not always the egg type (with the exception of salmon roe), but the supplier. I have called out some of these differences in retailers above.
Osetra Sturgeon. Eggs are medium-sized, firm and brownish in coloring. The flavor is strong, fruity and nutty. Pricing ranges from $85-$165 per one-ounce quantity. Try tasting with Schramsberg’s J. Schram Rosé (one of our sparkling wine suggestions), as its fruity tones enhance the creamy, nutty flavor of the Osetra. In Schramsberg’s pairing write-up mentioned at the end of this section, the Select California Estate Osetra is the specific sturgeon caviar suggested with the rosé.
Sevruga Sturgeon. Found in the Caspian Sea, this sturgeon is the smallest and most abundant, with small, dark-gray-to-black eggs. The caviar is aromatic, fresh, spicy and smooth. A one-ounce jar serving one-to-two people runs from approximately $80-$115. Sample this delight with a little Dom Perignon. The spicy, nutty character of this champagne picks up on the spicy flavor of the Sevruga.
American Sturgeon Hackleback. Like the Sevruga Sturgeon, its eggs are small and range in color from gray to black. On the palate, this caviar is subtle, smooth and rich with a clean aftertaste, while the texture is medium-firm, not poppy. The cost is modest, at $21-$38 per one-ounce jar.
Salmon roe. Eggs are large, golden or pink, and possess a tangy, pungent flavor—in a good way! Because this caviar is one of the least expensive, it is normally not sold by the ounce; otherwise, it might cost only $2-$4 per jar. Salmon roe ranges from $18-$30 for an eight-ounce quantity. When serving with champagne, make it a brut.
Schramsberg features a fantastic, downloadable PDF piece listing numerous caviar types paired with their various sparkling wines.
Although the thought of a sip of champagne after a puff on a heavy cigar may sound refreshing, light and smooth cigars are a better pair with your bubblies. I spoke with Christina Vinci, manager of BakerStreet Tobacconist, Clocks & Unique Gifts, located in Napa, California, who suggested cigars with varying price points to match our holiday sparklers. Owner Brenda Roberts seconds Ms. Vinci’s picks and adds a few of her own.
Below are a couple of options from each of three categories of quality and pricing. Pricing listed is approximate, and ranges indicate differences in size.
- La Aurora Preferidos (Dominican Republic), $17. The Blue Sapphire, creamy, mild and smooth, is the stick to sample. Wrappers are specially-aged in oak cognac barrels, then the cigars are packaged in beautiful, embossed, blue aluminum tubes for a lovely presentation.
- Paul Garmirian (Dominican Republic), $10. Try the Gourmet series Regular blend (NOT the 15th Anniversary) with its smooth, light taste. This smoke starts with an almost buttery flavor, followed by bright, caramelized sweetness.
- Avo (Dominican Republic), $8-$10. Both the #2 and #9 work. Avo is considered premium, but without the primo price tag.
- Avo’s Classic #2 has thick, creamy and rich smoke to the end.
- Avo's Classic #9 is slightly earthy with a bit of caramel on the finish.
- Troya (Nicaragua), $7-$9. The Classico pairs well with your bubbly due to its beautiful, mild and tasty smoke.
Inexpensive with no shame: these cigars are reasonably-priced, but you can be proud to pass them around at a party.
- Chateau Real (Nicaragua), $6-$8. Chateau Real is both the make and the blend. Mild-to-medium-bodied, smooth and nutty, this cigar is a classic.
- Baccarat (Honduras), $2.75-$4.95. The Baccarat is both the make and the blend. With the sugar water on the tip, sparkling wine is a nice match for the Baccarat with the natural wrapper.
Chef Roy Salazar, instructor of a class called Advanced Wine at Le Cordon Bleu of San Francisco, teaches his students how matching fluids with solids also applies to fluids with a solid called cigars. The same principles apply for matching wine with cigars as for pairing wine with food. Chef Roy especially likes the Avo cigar mentioned above with Schramsberg’s sparkling wine. “This Brut is known for the light hazelnut flavor it carries by way of the medium toasting of the oak barrels that is used when fermentation process occurs. The creaminess of the wine, by way of the yeasty taste and mouthfeel, will also parallel that of the cigar. All in all, it is a top drawer match. Something to enjoy while walking with your hounds, around your estate; or for me, walking with my three favorite beings, my wife Julie and two Basset hounds, Mouton and Lafite, around our neighborhood . . . purely capital! Bravo.”
TRUFFLES AND CHOCOLATES
Truffles and champagne? Talk to different people and you get different answers. According to John Anderson, owner of Woodhouse Chocolates in St. Helena, California, “Almost any sparkling wine will pair well with chocolates, particularly sparkling rosé”. Whereas a couple professionals at Schramsberg (names withheld) don’t believe any chocolate truffles will pair well with sparkling wines. OK, maybe a white chocolate with a creamy sparkler—their only exception.
Samantha Williams, Wine Educator, among other roles, at Gloria Ferrer, fell in the middle of the two extremes. You will have a winner if you serve the older style, late disgorged sparkling wines with truffles. The heavy, rich, older sparklers like Bollinger or Grand Cru, which are usually darker in color, work very well. These are bruts, by the way. One might think it takes a sweet bubbly to work with the sweet treat, but not in this case. When a still wine, especially a reserve chardonnay, is added to the final dose at disgorgement, a very pleasing match for chocolates is created.
Again, the Schramsberg professionals stressed how difficult a pairing of a chocolate truffle is with a sparkling wine. One should especially veer away from a chardonnay-based wine, as the citrus notes don’t go very well with the chocolate. Stick with pinot-based sparkling wines when matching to truffles, unless you’re considering a white chocolate. In that case, a richer sparkling wine might work.
Woodhouse chocolatier John Anderson, although very liberal with regards to eating chocolates and drinking champagne, says, “There are still a lot of no’s. . . the answer to all of this is discretion.” Know that all sparkling wines and chocolates are not alike. “Of all wines, champagne is the most forgiving with chocolates, with the exception of fortified wines, ports and syrahs.” Another motto is “Wine doesn’t hurt chocolate. Chocolate hurts wine.” In other words, the chocolate will never taste bad after a sip of any wine, but it’s possible the wine will taste bad after a bite of the wrong chocolate.
Following are a few bubbly-with-truffles suggestions from my conversations with the above experts.
Gloria Ferrer’s own Wine-Filled Truffles consumed with their Blanc de Noirs, mentioned earlier. These truffles happen to be filled with a thick reduction of Gloria Ferrer’s Blanc de Noirs: an obvious simpatico. According to Gloria Ferrer’s Samantha Williams, the liquid from the truffle literally pours into your mouth with the first bite. Follow this with a sip of the Blanc de Noirs and the effect is “explosive”. At $5.95 for a box of six or $11.95 for twelve, they’re a steal with your $20 bottle of Blanc de Noirs!
Schramsberg’s Crémant demi sec, mentioned earlier, savored with Woodhouse Chocolates’ White Chocolate Passion Fruit. The floral/lavender, not to mention creamy quality of the Crémant harmonizes with the white chocolate. The Crémant will cost you $30, and using the box price for Woodhouse below divided by twelve, you can pop one white chocolate in your mouth for $1.83.
Any of the unique Woodhouse Chocolates listed below with most sparkling wines (sparkling rosés especially with the non-white chocolates):
Quatre Epices (four-spice)
Box pricing runs as follows: 12 for $22/box, 24 for $44/box, 48 for $84/box and 96 for $168/box.
If your head is spinning, relax. Below are some easy, inexpensive package lineups using the matching principles we’ve learned. Each package should work for two people. Multiply by the number of people invited:
Bubbly: Tott’s Extra Dry, $5/bottle
Caviar: Salmon roe, $4 (you did have to pay $18 for an eight-ounce jar, but you’re only eating two servings)
Cigar: Troya Classico, $14/two
Chocolate: Woodhouse’s Champagne Truffle, $3.66/two
Tott’s is a brut, which works well with the salmon roe. The Troya cigar is mild enough to go with most sparkling wines. The butteriness of the champagne truffle works great with the brut and is reminiscent of the buttery salmon roe.
Total luxury package cost for two people: $27.
Bubbly: Ballatore Gran Spumante, $6/bottle
Caviar: American Sturgeon Hackleback, $21/one-ounce jar (enough for two people)
Cigar: Baccarat, $5.50/two
Chocolate: Woodhouse’s Honey, $3.66/two
The rich, clean finish of the spumante harmonizes with the similarly easy aftertaste of the Hackleback. The sugar-water tip on the Baccarat cigar makes it a great match with the sweetness of the spumante and any chocolate. The honey chocolate—what can I say? Ecstasy.
Total luxury package cost for two people: $36.
Bubbly: Segura Viudas Brut Rosé, $8/bottle
Caviar: American Sturgeon Hackleback, $21/one-ounce jar
Cigar: Chateau Real, $12/two
Chocolate: Woodhouse’s Raspberry Chambord: $3.66/two
Total luxury package cost for two people: $45.
The smooth, clean character of the Hackleback makes it a simple pairing with almost any sparkler. The mild, smooth Chateau Real cigar will meet any combatant without a struggle. The fruit in the rosé greets the raspberry in the Chambord chocolate.
If you have more room in your budget, knock yourself out! Pick up a case of the Schramsberg’s Reserve sparkler, a pound of the Osetra Sturgeon caviar, a box of La Aurora Preferidos Blue Sapphire cigars and a 96-piece box of Woodhouse chocolates!
Thank you to my contributors:
BakerStreet Tobacconist, Clocks & Unique Gifts, Napa, CA: Manager Christina Vinci and Owner Brenda Roberts, 707-255-4434,
Chef Roy Salazar, Instructor Le Cordon Bleu of San Francisco
Woodhouse Chocolates, St. Helena, CA: Owner John Anderson, 707-963-8413,
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, CA: Samantha Williams, Wine Educator/Tasting Room & Sales, 707-933-1917,