The Bolder Side of Bubbly


Champagne, one of life’s great pleasures. This year, try sipping this heavenly libation with unexpected food pairings.

“The history of Champagne is about the ‘assemblage,’” explains Jean-Marie Barillère, co-president of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). Assemblage refers to the blending of the three primary grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – with up to 20 percent of past vintages to create current Champagne vintages. Producers located in the southern regions in Champagne blend in a higher percentage of Pinot Noir, producing a fuller and bolder wine.

Champagne crafted with 100 percent Chardonnay is considered the most elegant and is referred to as ‘Blanc de Blancs.’ The variations in the proportion of each grape and that of the older vintage give distinctive character to Champagne. This opens up the food pairings immensely since the classic Champagne and caviar match is generally reserved for a vintage wine, rather than a Brut, Rosé or Blanc de Blancs.

The CIVC recently paid a visit to Chicago, showcasing a broad array of Champagne pairings at NoMI inside the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel. A Pierre Moncuit Brut Champagne was just the right foil for the chef’s salad of Werp Farm greens, shaved celery root and fennel in a mild cider vinaigrette. Another spot-on pairing featured pan-seared Lake Superior White Fish with a golden raisin-studded caponata with Veuve Cliquot Brut Yellow Label.

Following lunch was a tasting from over 30 Champagne producers, the largest official Champagne tasting in the U.S. held for the first time in Chicago, at The Ivy Room. More alternative pairings of intrigue came from an array of proprietors; Bertrand Glory of Champagne Collet suggested his Brut with a veal dish, while Geoffrey Loisel of Billecart-Salmon prefers free-range chicken with a curry coconut butternut squash with the 2004 Blanc de Blancs. Quentin Paillard, founder of Wine A la Card LLC, opted for seared scallops or fresh sushi to complement his family’s Pierre Paillard Brut. Alternative food pairings with Champagne run the gamut, signaling that it’s really quite a versatile wine, despite its long-standing association with excessively fancy food.

The bubbles and acidity in Champagne cut through fat in a rich dish, say a duck breast, while the sprightly and palate-cleansing quality make it great with extremely subtle food such as sushi or sashimi. I just returned from a trip to Los Angeles where we had wonderful Rosé Champagne with fresh fish tacos and a squeeze of lime. Surprisingly, it was truly a match that had you reaching for another sip then bite.

“There’s nothing better than a chilled glass of Champagne with our roasted duck à l’orange,” says Jamie Pellar, proprietor of Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen. Brut Champagne can bring out the earthiness and full body of the duck, plus it highlights the citrus in the orange sauce.

“One of our favorite pairings is our tempura Wisconsin cheese curds,” shares Nancy Parng, one of the wine buyers at Pops for Champagne. “The crispy tempura and salty, yet chewy nature of the curds go great with a Brut,” she says. At RM Champagne Salon, samplings of cheeses or mignardises are the pairs of choice. Cheeses might include washed-rind goat’s milk Haystack Red Cloud, semi-soft cow’s milk Morbier or Spanish sheep’s milk Ossau-Iraty. On the other extreme are the sweets like a PB&J truffle, violet marshmallow, almond crunch or KitKat bar. RM shies away from the typical heavy chocolate dessert pairing, opting for some whimsical fun flavors that make the Champagne pop rather than overwhelm it.

Once the 2013 holiday season is past, remind yourself that Champagne isn’t just for special occasions. When the days get shorter and the winter sets in, cook up a warm homemade mac and cheese topped with buttery breadcrumbs and pop a cork of fruity Brut or Rosé Champagne. You’ll feel rejuvenated as the refreshing bubbles burst on your tongue.


About Laura Levy Shatkin

Laura Levy Shatkin served for 10 years as food and wine critic for the Chicago Reader. Later, she became an Emmy-nominated executive producer for Taste, a 30-minute food and wine show on NBC-5 Chicago, which later merged into, where Ms. Levy is a partner/owner. Today, she teaches private wine classes and hosts wine parties for consumers and firms, and continues to tell the video stories of wine, girlfriends and wine travel on her TCW blog, Wine…ing Women.