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Break out the bubblies for dinner tonight
PERHAPS it is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating: Not all sparkling wine is champagne. Champagne is the ne plus ultra of sparkling wine.
Properly used, the name refers to sparkling wine from the Champagne region in northern France, an hour or two's drive from Paris. The region smacks of history.
Chalk quarries that yielded stone for the Roman Empire's northern batiments are today the cellars where top champagnes are aged. France's kings and queens were crowned in the cathedral at Reims. Some of the fiercest fighting in World War I occurred here, and there are still occasional reports of older wines hidden from the Nazi occupiers of World War II, only recently discovered.
And did I mention that those wines are darned good? Oh yeah, I guess I did.
From the Belle Epoque in the late 19th century, champagne producers were so successful in marketing their wine as the symbol of luxury and celebration, that even today we equate any bubbly vino with champagne.
CIVC, the association of champagne producers, has been very zealous - often too much so - in protecting the image and insisting that the name only apply to the wines of the region. And yet, we persist in equating all bubbles with champagne. To be honest, if you welcome me to your house with a glass of champagne and I later see the label and realise it's something else, I won't think any less of you. I will still thank you for your hospitality.
Yet, the distinction in terms is important. By calling all sparkling wine "champagne" we not only insult champagne but we also do a disservice to Spanish cava, Italian prosecco and bubblies from California and elsewhere. These are wines in their own right that should be recognised and appreciated for what they are. They should not be lumped with champagne, or held up to its standards.
Champagne is wine first, bubbles second. This is a point many champagne producers have emphasised in recent years, but it hasn't always been so. Doug Rosen, co-owner of Arrowine & Cheese in suburban Washington, recalls visiting a young champagne producer named Cedric Bouchard in 2005 as he was scouting new talent to feature at his store. Bouchard's father was sceptical of his son's winemaking, which included low yields and minimal intervention in the nascent movement of natural wines. "Champagne is about the bubbles," Bouchard huffed.
"No, it's not," Rosen recalls replying. "It's about great wine, with bubbles." Rosen featured the wine, and today, the younger Bouchard's Roses de Jeanne label is highly sought after by fans of boutique "grower" champagnes, wines made by the vintners who grew the grapes. These are still rare in champagne, where the market is dominated by large houses that purchase most of their grapes.
When we think of champagne as wine first and bubbles second, we can move beyond the celebratory toast and, budget allowing, put a bottle on the dinner table. A good champagne has depth and complexity to match dishes such as roast poultry and fish. As I'm fond of saying: "Bubbles go with everything." That's even more true with champagne. Champers' fiends love it with anything salty, like popcorn.
"Champagne is incredibly food-friendly, which most people don't realise," says Alison Smith Marriott, founder of Bon Vivant DC, a wine education consultancy focused on champagne. "It's often treated as an aperitif or something for caviar, but its high acidity and diversity of styles work with many cuisines. I've paired champagne with everything from seafood to fried chicken - even steak."
"My little brother loves junk food, as well as great wine, so last time he visited I served Pol Roger with pork rinds," she added. "It doesn't have to be precious to be exceptional."
Top of the pops
Really fine sparkling wine is worth the splurge. These are not daily wines, but they are fitting for your most festive celebrations, including New Year's Eve, weddings, birthdays and promotions. This list includes a top-notch champagne as well as an outstanding bubbly from Oregon and a delicious novelty from northern Italy.
- Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne Brut, Champagne, France, US$60*: 3 stars. The Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne is impressively complex, combining a mineral texture and a fine bead of bubbles with an intriguing finish that dances between notes of roast citrus and baked sour apple. Alcohol by volume (ABV): 12 per cent.
- Leclerc-Briant Reserve Brut, Champagne, US$70: Three stars. This is a substantial champagne, combining power and finesse. It is toasty with notes of brioche and yeast, ripe apples and apricots. It is certainly substantial enough to match with a variety of dishes, so keep this one for dinner. ABV: 12.5 per cent.
- Argyle Blanc de Blancs Spirit Hill 2014, Willamette Valley, Oregon, US$45: Three stars . Argyle set a high standard for Oregon sparkling wine, and it remains one of the best US bubbly producers. This is a single-vineyard blanc de blancs, made from chardonnay grown in the Eola-Amity Hills area of Willamette Valley, where the Van Duzer winds whip in from the coast to cool the vines and preserve acidity in the grapes. This is gorgeous, more fruity in a New World way than minerally like champagne, and it demonstrates how the same care and techniques of champagne can accomplish wonders in the US. ABV: 12.5 per cent.
- Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve NV, Champagne, US$36 for 375 milliliters, US$63 for 750 ml: Three stars. This is a favourite champers of wine lovers, and not just because it's fun to say. (Billy-car sah-MOn, as in "moan," but swallow the last n, hinting it without pronouncing it.) It's downright delicious, with roasted lemon and apricot flavours and an echo of toasted hazelnuts on the long finish. ABV: 12 per cent.
- Malabaila 1362 Pas Dosè Metodo Classico, Piemonte, Italy, US$33: Two and a half stars. Here's a novelty sparkler that surprises and delights. It hails from Piemonte in northwestern Italy, known for barolo and barbaresco, but not for sparkling wines. It is a 50-50 blend of nebbiolo, the region's chief red grape variety, and arneis, which makes delicate, floral white wines. The result is a fascinating light-bodied bubbly with flavors of raspberry and red currant that seem to want to linger for an after-dinner conversation. ABV: 12 per cent.
- Champagne Moutard Brut Rose Dame Nesle, Champagne, US$37: Two and a half stars. Bubbles and rose are relaxed elegance in a glass. This beauty, a bargain for champagne, is delicately floral and refreshing. It's delightful for a celebratory toast or for lighter seafood dishes. ABV: 12 per cent.
- Charles Orban Carte Noire Brut NV, Champagne, US$26 for 375ml, US$42 for 750ml: 2 stars. The Charles Orban Carte Noire is good, solid, reliable champagne at an affordable price. It offers a nice toasty flavour on the finish. ABV: 12 per cent. WP
- 3 stars - Exceptional; 2 stars - Excellent; 1 star - Very good;
* US retail prices