Spend a week—or even a day—in the Champagne region of France, and you’ll observe an interesting cultural trait: The locals drink Champagne with meals throughout the day. And why not? As is the case throughout France, the Champenois tend to drink what’s produced locally.
I first noticed this local lust for bubbles while eating lunch in a small café in Reims. I was enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich in a smoky cafe with all the charm of Junior’s Tavern, when I noticed that everyone around me was drinking Champagne. Champagne with soup, Champagne with pizza, Champagne with grilled cheese.
The following day, in Veuve Clicquot’s “widow’s mansion,” I was treated to a full-on formal lunch with Philippe Le Tixerant, a spokesman for the world-renown Champagne producer. Champagne was served throughout the five-course lunch, which included foie gras, veal loin, cheeses and dessert. From the opening apéritif paired with Clicquot’s heralded La Grande Dame 1990 to a fruit salad with the sweet Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, it was as if these Champagnes had been made to accompany food—as indeed they were. I was beginning to enjoy the Champagne/food nexus I’d discovered.
However, it wasn’t until I met winemaker Bruno Paillard that the potential for marrying good food with good Champagne became apparent to me. As owner and president of Champagne’s youngest Champagne house, Paillard is somewhat of a renegade, combining classic methods of Champagne making with state-of-the-art computer technology. Paillard’s production is modest but Champagne aficionados, fine restaurants and wine experts all attest to the quality of Paillard Champagnes.
At his office, we sipped Bruno’s dry Chardonnay Réserve Privée Brut, made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Its creamy body and lacy foam add to its enjoyment as an apéritif, though it would also pair well with fish, seafood or even chicken dishes that are on the mild side. We then retreated to a classic French brasserie in Reims, Au Petit Comptoir, where Paillard’s non-vintage Première Cuvée proved versatile enough to be enjoyed throughout dinner. The Première Cuvée is Paillard’s flagship Champagne, accounting for some three-quarters of house sales.
As we sipped his Champagne, Bruno Paillard shed light on some of the mysteries and misconceptions about Champagne, both in France and in America. “Even the French don’t always understand Champagne,” said Paillard. His pet peeves include the practice of serving Champagne too cold. “If it’s too cold, you cannot taste the wine,” he said. It’s also usually served with the wrong foods or none at all, according to Paillard—most often with dessert. “It ruins both the dessert and the wine,” says Paillard. But the biggest misconception regarding Champagne, according to Bruno Paillard, is the belief that Champagne isn’t a good wine to have with meals. “Even the French don’t understand this,” he said.
As wine expert Josh Wesson suggests, Champagne isn’t only intended for elegant or elaborate occasions. You might try an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine with popcorn while watching a video—a combination Wesson calls “Blockbuster Helper.” In fact, with some experimentation you’ll find that Champagne goes well with just about everything except hearty red meats and stews. My advice is to open a bottle of Bruno Paillard Champagne—not too cold—with a meal at home or in a restaurant. You’ll find Champagne pairs exceptionally well with food, and you’ll have an excuse to drink the fizzy stuff on occasions other than weddings and gala affairs.