Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Champagne - it's what should be for dinner

There are many myths and legends in the wine world that drive me up the wall. But the one that really makes me insane (granted, not too difficult a thing to do) is the persistent insistence that Champagne is to be opened only for celebratory occasions. The Champagne houses have done such a fantastic job of educating (ie brainwashing) the masses that many people can't even fathom the thought of having bubbly with anything but a birthday cake or a New Year noisemaker.

Let's think about this.

Champagne is a wine that happens to have bubbles in it via its secondary fermentation. It comes from northeastern France, where the ground is chalky and the weather foul. This means the grapes have a hard time reaching the ripeness they'd need to make still wines. This also means they're full of acidity, just what is needed to match many types of food. Without the ripe fruit to balance that acidity, you're looking at some pretty mouth-puckering wines that would strip the enamel off your teeth. This acidity is the key. It survives the fermentations and is what balances the fruit and sugar that remain. It also allows Champagne to match and stand up to food, a perfect foil for most meals.

So why do most people refuse to believe or even comprehend this? Again, the Champagne houses are to blame. And when one says that they drink Champagne often (as I do), many folks look at me as if I'm nuts (granted, I probably am, but for many different reasons). The terms "decadent", "hedonistic" (admittedly a label I embrace), and "indulgent" are the usual reactions. How is it that one can drink a bottle of $20-40 still wine with dinner but if I were to drink a bottle of $30 Champagne I'm "indulgent"? Has the brain-washing come so far?!

Well, I am on a one-man crusade to fix this.

Champagne should be enjoyed like any other wine, for it is exactly that. A wine. It goes well with a variety of foods from a plethora of ethnicities. Sushi, warm fish dishes, chicken, duck, ice cream, sorbet, even filet mignon are all complimented by different Champagnes. It's just a matter of finding the right style to match the food.

For example, most styles (Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs) go with sushi. Blanc de Blancs (made from 100% Chardonnay) go well with lighter meats and fish, while Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir) are great with heartier dishes. Roses are great with appetizers, as they're dryly fruity with some nice crisp acidity to back them up. And sweeter styles are wonderful with many desserts, especially fruity ones (OK, maybe not chocolate).

In the interest of science and my own thirst, I tasted a selection of Champagnes that I could find in NYC for around $30. That's my cut-off for "house" Champagne, meaning something non-vintage that I can open without feeling guilty. Or indulgent.

And if you're wondering why you've never heard of any of these, let me explain. Most of these are what's euphemistically called "farmer fizz", or small producer Champagnes. These are wines that reflect not only where they're from but most importantly who made them. They're not from some big faceless corporation which puts more money into marketing than quality control. These guys are focusing on what they do well, ie grow grapes and make wine. They let the product speak for themselves, and boy do they have a lot to say!

So herein are my tasting notes from this admittedly pleasant ordeal:

-NV Champagne Ellner Brut Reserve
On the nose, this had some slight yeast and toast, with honey, light red fruits and even a slight herbal note. The palate had similar aspects, on a tart and nervous frame with fine bubbles. As it sat in the glass it seemed to gain weight and rondeur, the structure filling out ever so slightly and seeming to thicken somewhat.
Nice, but I was hoping for more.

-NV Bellefond de Besserat Cuvee des Moines Brut
Another night, another NV Champagne. Beautiful golden color, leading to soft aromas of white flowers and peach and even some honeyed notes after a while. On the palate, this showed a creamy, slightly sweet structure with more of the same notes, some light red fruits, and a long nutty finish.
Far too softly sweet for my tastes, I prefer more acidity in my bubbly. Still, for a newbie to the stuff, this might be adequate.

-NV Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart Brut
After the soft sweetness of the Bellefond de Besserat, this was a pleasant change of pace, and much more to my liking. On the nose, this was full of toast, yeast, coffee, lime, citrus and white flowery notes, with some green apple and bread dough. The palate was super tart and crisp, exactly what I look for in a NV Brut. Gorgeously balanced, with tons of yeast, toast, bread dough, cafe au lait, citrus, and even some melon, it led to a wonderfully tart finish that went on and on and on.
I was really surprised at how deep and complex this was, it was quite impressive.
Very good, especially at the price point (approx. $30).

-NV Diebolt Vallois Blanc de Blancs
Lovely and crisp, with nice lemon, pears and almonds on a tight, nervous frame that ends in a long, tart finish. Great mouthfeel, lovely length, just absolutely delicious.

See, it's easy, go ahead and try it. Pop a cork, amaze, horrify and stupify your friends, and when they make some snooty comment, tell them they can't have any. Ask a local store to find some Champagnes at a price point you feel comfortable with and see what happens. You just might be (pleasantly) surprised... And of course, it never hurts to be indulgent sometimes...


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