Bubbly companion

Champagne sparkles with food on New Year's Day and throughout the year.

December 24, 2003|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For most of us, champagne is less a beverage than a symbol of celebration: the sparkling glass we lift to toast the new year, a marriage, a promotion.

The question of whether it goes better with lobster or lamb might never occur to us. "People don't even think of champagne as wine," says Baltimore wine expert Al Spoler, co-host of Cellar Notes on WYPR-FM. "Certainly not as something you'd see on the table with dinner."

OK, then, let's start with breakfast. "One of the great food-and-wine pairings is scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and champagne," says Serena Sutcliffe, the British director of wine for Sotheby's auction house and the author of Champagne: The History and Character of the World's Greatest Wine (Simon & Schuster, 1988). "There's nothing like it. The smokiness of the salmon adds bite to the eggs and champagne offsets the contrast perfectly."

And given her druthers, she would make it a bottle of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, from the oldest Champagne house in France. But in a pinch, she would take a bottle of Roederer Estate, a California sparkling wine from a French maker, widely available for well under $20.

When asked about the possibility of a mimosa, Sutcliffe is politely horrified. "It ruins the orange juice and it ruins the champagne," she says. "I know you Americans have a tradition, but no. Really."

Like many wine lovers, Sutcliffe has great enthusiasm for serving champagne with food. "Before World War II in Britain," she points out, "when all champagne was vintage [made from grapes of a single year] and very full-bodied and winey, people drank it with meals all the time. With any fish dish, with white meats, with simple home dinners.

"After the war, the character of champagne changed. Nonvintage champagne [blending grapes from multiple years] was introduced, and it was a much lighter taste, something to drink right away rather than put down in a cellar. It was perfect for the new kinds of parties and receptions people were having."

Through the 1950s and 1960s, champagne became a popular party drink rather than an elite beverage. But Sutcliffe believes that pairing champagne with food is coming back into vogue - "and there are some great marriages out there, and some really unexpected ones," she says.

Sutcliffe loves champagne with Chinese food, particularly with dim sum. With curries or Thai food - anything with a bit of heat - she likes the sweeter demi-sec varieties. Crab cakes with pink champagne is lovely, she says, though she'd choose a Brut blanc de blancs (the driest white variety) to go with a fresh crab salad. "With oysters, it's got to be Bollinger," she says. "It's the most minerally of champagnes; it balances the saltiness." She even loves champagne with asparagus, widely believed to be a terrible combination.

Some discord is common among wine experts, it seems, because Tony Foreman, owner of Baltimore's Bin 604 liquor store and co-owner of Charleston and Petit Louis restaurants, says he would never suggest a rose with crab cakes. He thinks even the drop of tannin that makes it pink is too much; he would go with a regular brut. But he agrees with Sutcliffe's main point: Champagne is a great food wine. And, he says, its prices have shot up far less than Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone. His favorite reasonably priced Champagne is Duval-Leroy, which sells at around $30 for both the rose and the brut NV. He also recommends nonvintage Billecart-Salmon, which is about $40.

"Why can't Americans bring themselves to drink champagne with meals, or even as a regular aperitif before a meal?" Foreman wonders, then answers his own question. "I think there's something inherently Puritan in our culture. You know, you can't have dessert first, you've got to save your nice clothes for a special occasion, you can only have that thing you love on your birthday."

Foreman, unsurprisingly, is not himself of this persuasion. He reminisces dreamily about a dinner he and his wife, chef Cindy Wolf, had at a little one-star restaurant in the Champagne region, a night that taught him much about the flexibility of Champagne. Because they were with a fellow from Perrier-Jouet, a great Champagne house, they knew they were going to be drinking bubbly with dinner.

When Wolf looked over the menu and selected lamb as a main course, she said, "I don't mean to be difficult, but I don't know how you can have lamb with Champagne."

"I don't know how you can have it without Champagne," replied the sommelier, and after they tasted the lamb entree with a glass of Perrier-Jouet rose, Foreman and Wolf felt they no longer knew either.

Mireille Guiliano, the chief executive officer of Clicquot, maker of the most popular Champagne in the United States, adores both lamb and duck with rose Champagne - but she's also crazy about a glass of Veuve Clicquot yellow label with pizza or sushi.

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