Whenever I’ve entered sommelier food pairing competitions, there’s usually one rule: no Champagne. No matter how much you might want to pair that fresh, herb-crusted rack of lamb with a dry, summery Krug rosé, you’re forced to pick a red wine instead. That’s because Champagne is a no-brainer wine for a food pairing; it’s easy to show a meal in its best light when you serve it with the right style of Champagne, and if we sommeliers had our way in these competitions, bubbly would be our default choice. The incredible versatility of Champagne proves that you don’t have to be an award-winning sommelier like the ones you see in Somms Under Fire to pick the ideal wine for a meal.
Why Champagne Is the Perfect Wine and Food Pairing
There are four main theories on why Champagne goes so well with so many foods. First, the strong acidity in the wine excites the palate, and has the power to either complement or cut through the natural flavors of most foods. Acidity is so important that some winemakers pick their grapes before they’re completely ripe, hoping to retain some of that lip-puckering quality. Second, low alcohol levels in most Champagnes make food the star of the show, with the wine playing a supporting role. Generally, you don’t want a huge, alcoholic wine if you want to make a smart wine and food pairing because this kind of wine will overpower every other flavor. Third, the bubbles in Champagne work alongside the high acid levels to keep your palate interested, cleansing your taste buds in-between bites. Finally, Champagne comes in every style imaginable, meaning you have enough variety to craft the perfect pairing for almost anything.
Styles of Champagne for Every Food
It happens to all of us at one point or another: you have that perfect home cooked meal planned for a get-together with friends, and your idea is to pair it with a Champagne, but when you walk through the aisles of your local wine shop, you’re completely stumped. Should you pick a vintage Champagne? How about a rosé? Brut, extra brut, sweet? Your choice of Champagne style matters in a wine and food pairing, and not all Champagnes are created equal. Here are a few simple rules that I’ve discovered in my years of tasting:
Pairing Brut or Extra Brut
If you’ve never had an extra brut Champagne, you might not even recognize it as bubbly at first. I know that when I first tried this style, I instantly puckered from the intense acid; this is not a dessert wine, that’s for sure. Many wine lovers I’ve met over the years are afraid to pair extra brut Champagne with anything because these wines have very little or no residual sugar to cut through that acidity. By far the best kinds of food to serve with a low-sugar Champagne like Bollinger RD are bitter salads or citrusy seafood. Lemon-glazed prawns with a mandarin arugula salad is a great example of an ideal food for a brut wine pairing because the shellfish takes well to the freshness of the wine, while all of the fruity citrus notes of the wine complement the citrus in the meal overall.
Pairing Dry or Sec
This is my favorite style for a wine and food pairing because the possibilities are endless. The higher sugar content (anywhere from 12 to 35 grams per liter) means that these wines can pair with richer foods like lobster, crab, monkfish or tuna. A seafood-centric meal or wine pairing dinner is a great way to make full use of Champagne’s versatility. And if you plan on serving something deep fried and oily, now is the time to pull out the Dom Perignon Oenotheque. I love seeing the confused look on people’s faces when I recommend a fine Champagne for something like fried pickles or onion rings, but it’s true: rich, fatty foods take to Champagne like a fish to water. In this case, a deep-fried fish.
Pairing Demi or Doux
Sweeter Champagnes can have more than 50 grams per liter of sugar, so I usually save these for pairing with dessert. Anything sweet or even off-sweet will go well with this type of Champagne, especially complex, light desserts–think raspberry creme brulee, rather than a giant piece of chocolate cake. Chocolate goes better with fortified wines like port and madeira, so I try to save my sweet Champagne for fruit-based desserts, or desserts that require a lighter touch, like angel food cake or souffle.
When to Pull Out the Vintage Champagne
Here’s a question people ask me all the time: when should I serve my best vintage Champagne? My answer is to save these for the main course. Here’s where you can pull out the big, complex flavors like honey-glazed pork chops or garlic-roasted chicken. Vintage Champagne has a slightly-oxidized character, especially when you go with older brut styles like Cristal. The wine becomes less about crisp, youthful notes, and more about the secondary and tertiary flavors hidden underneath. The longer your Champagne has been cellared, the more complex the food should be to match its depth of flavor. Pick out a few notes that critics have found, and see if you can mimic them in the foods you serve. If you’re really stumped, or concerned about overpowering your best bubbly, I always say, “You know what the best pairing with Champagne is? It’s another bottle of Champagne.”
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Ryan has worked in every restaurant capacity from bartender to management, and in wine distribution as a consultant and advisor to Chicago’s most elite restaurants and retailers. As a new member of Vinfolio’s Executive Fine Wine Specialists, he is thrilled to share his expertise and passion for wine. Outside of the office, he can be found learning to cultivate vines in the garden, with a glass of White Burgundy in hand, or hiking with his wife and dogs.