A few years ago, I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in the Champagne region of France. Staying in Reims at the Michelin 3-star Les Crayeres chateau hotel didn’t suck. But much of my time was spent—when I wasn’t in underground Champagne caves—skulking around little bistros and mom & pop eateries, trying to get a fix on Champagne. Or, maybe I was just trying to get a Champagne fix. Either way, what I discovered is that in Champagne, folks actually drink Champagne, and lots of it. They drink it with lunch; they drink it with dinner. It’s not just for special occasions, that’s for sure.
Before submerging myself in Champagne’s bubbles, my thinking about Champagne went something like this: There is really good Champagne (i.e., expensive) that you buy for special occasions: Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame, Dom Perignon, Crystal, on so on. For these celebrations, you unpack the crystal glasses, make witty toasts and are usually terribly disappointed that you spent well over a hundred bucks for something that tastes, well, like Champagne. Then there are all those other occasions, when you typically open up a bottle of nonvintage (not so expensive) Champagne, and though you don’t feel ripped off, you’re still usually disappointed by the taste of the stuff. If you’ve had similar Champagne setbacks, I’d be willing to bet they can be attributed to one common error: You probably drink the wrong Champagne at the wrong time. We all do.
Think about it. When do we usually sip Champagne? We drink bubbly at weddings and with desserts. We tend to enjoy Champagne in a glass all by itself, but when we get it around food, look out! The reason is simple: We’ve been told that to enjoy Champagne—as with most wines—we want it to be as dry as Moab. So we reach for the driest bubbly we can find—usually brut Champagne—and we serve it with sweet wedding cake. Clash! But while we wouldn’t think of serving a bone-dry white Bordeaux with dessert or with cake at a wedding reception, we serve bone-dry champagne with desserts all the time and then wonder why it tastes so yucky. So, here’s Champagne lesson No. 1: Generally speaking, it’s wise to serve sweet champagnes with sweet foods. Pair wines and foods with affinities. Save the brut for popcorn or grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Champagne’s body also matters. Body, in wines, has to do with the weight and thickness of the wine—what’s commonly called the mouth-feel. A glass of sparkling water is light-bodied; a glass of hot chocolate is heavy. Light-bodied Champagnes are ideal as aperitifs and with light foods, especially chips, nuts, gougeres and such. Some good examples of lighter-bodied Champagnes include Piper-Heidsieck Brut, Ruinart Brut, Laurent-Perrier L.P. Brut, Nicolas Feuillatte Blue Label Brut, Deutz Brut Classic and Pommery Brut Royale. I once heard wine expert and purveyor Josh Wesson call Brut Champagne “Blockbuster helper,” because it pairs so beautifully with popcorn on the couch while watching a movie.
Medium-body Champagnes are versatile and can be sipped throughout a meal, especially those featuring shellfish and seafood, or lighter chicken, pasta and pork dishes. Good choices for medium-bodied Champagnes include Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial, Gosset Excellence Brut, Duval-Leroy Brut, Delamotte Brut, Billecart-Salmon Reserve Brut and Taittinger La Française Brut. The latter—Taittinger—is slightly sweet, a beautiful, elegant option.
For the big boys—the full-body Champagnes—that pair well with lots of different foods, including cheeses, look for Bollinger Special Cuvee, Krug Grande Cuvee, Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve and my favorite wine in the world: Salon.