Champagne. Uttering the very word evokes a visceral response, one that sparks the neurons and magically transports us to another place and time. Sure, there are other sparkling wines, and many of them are high-quality sippers at that. Cava, Crémant, Franciacorta, Prosecco, Moscato – each of these prompts images of gaiety, happiness, and light. But only Champagne (that word again!) instantly connotes celebration, conviviality, and camaraderie. I suppose that’s why the special wines of Champagne are linked so intricately with our acknowledgment of life’s grand achievements and milestones. Birthdays and anniversaries, graduation and retirement ceremonies, all seem lackluster without a bottle of bubbly from Champagne.
Small wonder then, that our French Winophiles group chose the region as its focus for this month’s discussion. Each month we travel to a different part of France, exploring food, wine, and cultural traditions along the way. If you’d like to participate in our adventure to Champagne, it’s easy to do: this Saturday, March 18th, at 11 am eastern time, join us on Twitter, following the #Winophiles. Listen in or jump into the fray, it’s up to you. Just remember to add the hashtag above to any of your tweets so we’ll know you’re out there.
If you’d like a preview of what we’ll be talking about, scroll down to the bottom of this post, where you’ll find a Who’s Who of food and wine bloggers who will be participating in the chat, as well as what they’ll be contributing to the discussion. It’s always good fun, with fantastic food pairing ideas and a few obscure facts you can tuck away for your next wine trivia night!
The Enduring Allure of Champagne
For me, Champagne has always been a special occasion wine, one whose beauty and brightness are enhanced by sharing it with a close friend or two. A secret shared over a glass of Champagne makes the bubbles a little bolder, the aromas a little headier – as if the wine itself were conspiring to keep it sacred. Declarations whispered over a mist of bubbles promise the permanence of eternal love. Dreams become reality, flowing along an invisible yet indubitable track to success. With a glass of Champagne in hand, all things seem possible!
From the time of its accidental discovery hundreds of years ago, Champagne has inspired big dreams, grandiose plans, and heart-warming revelries. Great cellars have always included these wines and, quite often, entire dinners are created to showcase a collector’s riches. In today’s world, we’d probably picture mounds of caviar, a sushi bar, and an elegant cheese display around which well-dressed beautiful people circulate, Champagne in hand. But a hundred years ago, dinners were more formal, dishes more elaborate. The idea was to entertain one’s guests at table, over a series of courses, by telling stories; enchanting your friends with words as well as gustatory delights.
Last summer while I was visiting New York City, I stopped in to one of my favorite shops there: Joanne Hendricks Cookbooks. Located in a house that looks like it should sit anywhere but in downtown Manhattan, this place delights anyone who loves food and drink. Upon entering, it feels as though you’ve been invited to stroll through a private collection of vintage books carefully curated to the owner’s fine sensibilities.
After an hour perusing the shelves full of tempting selections, I settled on three books. One of them, Viniana, is an anthology of stories about a series of dinners hosted by a wine merchant named Charles Walter Berry. Published in London in 1924, it discloses the details of four such evenings, each organized around a theme: Claret, Burgundy, Champagne, and Hock (aka German Riesling.)
The menu for the Champagne dinner exemplifies the formality and preparation that were de rigueur for entertaining back then: duck consommé with fresh beet juice; veal sweetbreads in mushroom velouté, encased in a noodle crust; braised pheasant; and baked oysters wrapped in bacon (Anges à Cheval or Angels on Horseback). And the wines that accompanied each course were pretty spectacular, too.
But in reading Mr. Berry’s account of the evening, I was more charmed by the stories he spun for his guests. Most came from his travels throughout Europe, as he meandered from chateaux in France to monasteries in Germany, in search of supposed caches of magnificent wine. One such tale involved a trip to South Wales and Port-fueled encounters with the resident ghost. Another related the misfortune of a cellar master whose prized Burgundy collection was decimated by cork-eating weevils. Mr. Berry’s guests seemed particularly entertained by tales of inept servants: in one case the host sent an imperial quart of 1895 Krug Champagne back to the kitchen because it was too warm, with instructions to put the bottle over ice. When said bottle did not return to the table in a reasonable time, the host went to get it himself, only to discover his employee literally pouring the contents of the bottle over the ice in the bucket!
In similar fashion, Mr. Berry related his own misfortune at an English inn: Having ordered a bottle of 1892 Clicquot, he sat at table anticipating his first sip of the wine. After a rather long time, he inquired about his bottle, receiving this response: “Your wine is in front of the fire getting warm.” Upon seeing Mr. Berry’s shock, the waiter explained that he remembered, from Berry’s previous visit, that he preferred his wines warmed up a bit after coming up from the cellar. Obviously the subtle difference between Claret and Champagne was lost on this particular waiter.
Throughout the Champagne Dinner, Mr. Berry and his guests comment on the wines served, and share their own anecdotes on meals and bottles past. Multiple courses, legendary wines, personal histories twine together to form an occasion, an event that transcends any one person at the table. In my mind, it speaks to the special nature of Champagne and how it encourages us to open ourselves to our friends and loved ones, setting the scene for a shared experience that will be more satisfying with each successive retelling.
Champagne – The Perfect Metaphor for New York
For me personally, Champagne is inextricably linked to New York City, itself a wellspring of bubbling aspirations and motivations. Long before I set foot on the island of Manhattan I envisioned it as a place where anything is possible; a place where dreams come true if you’re willing to work hard enough. Every New Year’s Eve, I’d watch the famous ball float down to the frenzy of Times Square, my pulse racing as fresh ideas for the coming year flowed through my mind. No matter where you are when the ball drops, in that moment you experience all the excitement and promise of New York City.
My first real-life experience with the Big Apple came in 2010, when I accepted a job with a company whose headquarters were in mid-town. I traveled a lot, including weekly jaunts to New York where, one fateful evening, I met my husband-to-be. A native New Yorker, he made it his personal mission to show me every corner of the city, hoping that I would eventually love it as much as he did. (That took a while.) But his passion for the energy, culture, and unique personality of the city was contagious and, before I knew it, the tapestry of our relationship was intricately woven onto the canvas of New York City. We married just before Christmas 2011, at the Ladies’ Pavilion in Central Park, followed by a luncheon at the always-elegant Loeb Boathouse. The menu? Seared diver scallops and Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Champagne. Since that momentous day, every one of our celebrations has included a bottle of LP.
Subsequent anniversaries fêted at home found us enjoying fresh seafood, usually with a little more energy than usual invested in the preparation. Because we were traveling over the holidays last year, we postponed our special dinner until a few weeks ago. But, in honor of Mr. Berry’s sublime evening, we made our best effort at Puttin’ on the Ritz, albeit just for ourselves. Our courses (not as elaborate as Mr. Berry’s but delicious nonetheless) included lobster tail with herbed butter; brussel sprout salad with cranberries and hazelnuts; porcini ravioli in sage butter sauce; and clams on the half-shell, with mignonette. Lots of work, for sure, but totally worth it. After all, sometimes it’s nice to turn up the volume a little, remind ourselves that there’s a reason to celebrate each and every day and, best of all, share a delicious secret over a glass of Champagne.
Do you love Champagne, too? Then you’ll enjoy reading what my colleagues have to say about it. Click on any one of the links below for a special treat, one that’s sure to include travel tales, tasting notes on exceptional wines, divine food-pairing ideas, and exquisite photographs. So close your eyes, take a sip of bubbly, and imagine you’re strolling through Reims. Isn’t that the cathedral straight ahead?
According to the French #Winophiles, Champagne is…
- crafted uniquely, from start to finish, as Lynn from Savor the Harvest reveals in her post, French #Winophiles Explore Champagne From Beginning to Bubbly Finish.
- dynamic and constantly refreshed, as Jane from Always Ravenous examines in her story, The Evolving Culture of Champagne .
- consistent and timelessly refined. Camilla from Culinary Adventures of Camilla shares a special perspective in her piece, Toasting Seventeen Years with Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut Champagne.
- personal and skilled, as we will learn in the story of Women in Wine: Floriane Eznack, Cellar Master, Champagne Jacquart from Gwendolyn at Wine Predator.
- food-friendly, approachable and versatile, as we’ll learn from Jeff at FoodWineClick! in his story Everyday Celebration with Champagne and Curried Shrimp Salad.
- affordable and surprisingly accessible, revealed as Martin from ENOFYLZ Wine Blog answers the question Under $30 Vintage Champagne? Oui!
- worth fighting for, as Jill from l’Occasion learned from the story of Bernard de Nonancourt of Laurent-Perrier: Champagne Résistance Fighter.