I was four years old when I had my first clue that you could pair food and wine for anyone at any meal, and I was lucky enough to learn this from a master. It was many years ago, and we were the quintessential All American Family: Mom, Dad, and two tow headed kids piled into our car on a tour through France, discovering the joys of French food, wine and culture.
One bright spring day in the Champagne region, we visited the Pol Roger Chateau in Épernay. As we entered the sunlit foyer, an impossibly elegant woman in Chanel greeted us. She spoke for a few moments on the phone: “The Americans are here”
, and shortly afterwards, a tall, kind faced man appeared through the side door. There was a little confusion at first – he had been expecting a team of American executives, who at that moment called to say that they were delayed. Luck was with us however, and he gamely decided to show these decidedly non-executive Americans around the Chateau. It turned out that our tour guide was none other than fourth generation scion, Christian Pol-Roger.
There are hundreds of miles of hand dug tunnels running through the chalk in the Champagne region, but they are not wet and musty, as you would think. We discovered that they’re cool, quiet, and a little damp, but surprisingly fresh and earthy smelling, much like fresh mushrooms. As Christian told us, they provide the perfect climate in which to age the millions of slumbering champagne bottles lined up along the walls.
At the end of one tunnel, he performed the ceremony of opening a bottle – removing the foil, untwisting the wire, then slowly easing the cork out with a small sigh, the sound gently echoing down the tunnel. He poured the foaming liquid into tall, slim flutes for everyone, even us children. My brother (who at age 6 preferred red wine) coughed at the effervescence, but I was entranced by what I observed in my glass – thousands of the tiniest bubbles I had ever seen, sliding upwards through the light golden liquid to collect in the mousse at the top of the glass. I sipped, and I knew it was something good.
Christian was talking with my parents about the Méthode Champenoise and how the grape juice and yeasts interacted to create flavors of biscuits and lemons when I added my four-year-old wisdom “It’s much better than soda pop!”. Christian laughed and leaned down to me, saying very quietly, “Did you know that French children have Champagne on their corn flakes in the morning?”. I giggled at him, knowing that they really didn’t, but in that moment when such a charming expert took me seriously, I discovered something great: the glories of food, wine, and the connections they can create between people – even a four year old American girl and a fourth generation French Champagne Master.
Many years on, his comment reminds me that Champagne and its cousins sparkling wines are not just for special occasions. Bubblies have a moderate alcohol level (usually about 12.5%) which makes them very food friendly, and come in styles from dry to sweet. Their underlying tartness and outstanding feature – the bubbles – make them unique in their ability to match with crispy and spicy foods. They’re priced comparably to still wines, with good everyday bottles under $12.00, up to special occasion bottles costing hundreds. If you’re worried about not finishing the bottle you can use a specialized stopper, but it’s easy to find half bottles, or even individual serving sized bottles – some brands even use screwcaps on these mini bottles for easier opening! I always keep a couple of mini bottles of Chandon Brut in the fridge. They’re tasty, go well with so many foods, and a perfect portion at a glass and a half.
Think of Bubblies as the lager of the wine world – crisp, a little tart, and refreshing; an incredible match for rich, salty, smoky and crispy foods – but remember their stylistic differences. True French Champagne with its yeasty overtones and tiny bubbles are more refined and go well with delicate and difficult to match dishes such as fish, eggs and soups. Of course, the classic pairings with caviar and smoked salmon are a perennial treat. New World sparklers have more fruit characteristics, which are great to match mild to moderate spice in Asian and Latin foods. Be careful, though - too much spice will overwhelm the wine.
For a twist, try Champagne with fried fish (the bubbles and crispy coating add a fantastic dimension to the mouthfeel), or a Spanish Cava with smoky barbequed chicken. As we head into spring, my friends and I will be out on the patio with one of my favorite combinations: Rosé bubbly with a bowl of Bouillabaisse. It’s been a wet winter here in Seattle, but this combination of seafood in garlicky broth with the refreshing lemon and slight red berry taste of the wine is a delicious assurance that spring is on the way.