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Making a Case for Champagne at the Table

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 2, 2007 12:00pm ET

I love beginning a good meal with a glass of Champagne. But how about serving a different Champagne with each course throughout the meal?

Though many people serve Champagne exclusively for toasts or celebration, fine Champagne is a great match with food. I recently rediscovered this pleasure at a dinner organized by Charles Curtis, master of wine and director of wine and spirits education at Moët Hennessy USA, and Peter Konopka, the sommelier at Aretsky’s Patroon.

Of course, it helps to have excellent Champagne to pour. Curtis and Konopka selected five different vintages of Krug—1996, 1995, 1976, 1986 Clos du Mesnil and 1961. Executive chef Bill Peet came up with some creative pairings, especially the dessert course, which he paired with the magnificent 1961.

I have tasted the 1996 several times this year. Firm and racy, yet with a creaminess on the midpalate, it tasted of apricots and toast. A refined Champagne, it was served as an aperitif and accompanied a number of hors d’oeuvres. My favorite match was the Kumamoto oysters with Champagne-Asian pear gelée.

The first course, caramelized diver scallops from Maine over preserved lemon and herb quinoa pilaf with a caviar beurre blanc, was paired with the Krug Collection 1976. The hot, sunny, drought year yielded a bubbly with big, robust aromas of toast, tobacco, coffee and gingerbread. It was still fresh, despite its obvious weight and the finish echoed coffee and a candied berry note.

The smoky, roasted elements in the Champagne matched the caramelized scallops with a counterpoint from the preserved lemon, which picked up the acidity in the wine.

The next course featured a salad with a lightly baked goat cheese crottin and the Krug 1995. The ’95 is broader and more opulent than the ’96, with a lovely texture and vibrant finish. The goat cheese provided a relatively neutral backdrop that allowed the Champagne to shine.

This was followed by the Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil 1986 with spit-roasted heirloom French chicken stuffed with black truffle and truffle butter and foie gras sauce. On its own, the Chardonnay-based Clos du Mesnil was aromatic, showing tropical fruit, coconut, woodsy and fresh chanterelle aromas. It picked up candied berry and honey flavors. It was absolutely gorgeous up front, but lacked the length of the other vintages.

Though not a bad match, this pairing was the least successful. The chicken dish was a bit strong for the Champagne. Nothing clashed, but there was no synergy.

The final course, on the other hand, was brilliant. Who would have though of putting the Krug 1961, a dry Champagne, up against dessert? Chef Peet did and it was an amazing combination.

The Krug Collection 1961 was magnificent. Dried peach, apricot and quince paste led off, followed by coffee, smoke, a blast of caramel and citrus peel flavors. Incredibly complex, rich and mellow on the palate, it lingered on and on. This is why you age great Champagne.

And the dessert? The maple financier cake had just a hint of sweetness so as not to compete with the wine. The maple-glazed finger bananas and salted caramel ice cream worked with the flavors, texture and balance of the Champagne for a seamless match. The combination of the two was something greater.

Champagne has the diversity to work throughout the meal, whether it’s different vintages or different cuvées. I also have high expectations that the Krug 1996 will develop like the ’61. I hope I can keep my hands off the few bottles I have for another 20 years.

Jason M Meyers
Medford, NY —  October 2, 2007 3:08pm ET
Bruce, I must tell you that, if there are such things as tears of envy, they were streaming down my face as I read about the incredible pairings you offered here...I've had enough fine Champagne to know, as you, that it is all too wasted on wedding toasts and locker room celebrations. The greatest thing for me is keeping the food, a small bite, simple so as to let the wine be the star. The best pairing ever for me? A handful of raw almonds and the 1990 Salon...By myself - it was too good to share.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  October 2, 2007 4:23pm ET
Dear Bruce,As Madame Bollinger said once, I drink Champagne when I am alone and also when I have company, I drink Champagne when I am sad and I drink it to celebrate, I drink it also with the greatest meals and sometimes without any food. I drink at lunch and often at dinner. Apart from that, I drink Champagne just because i love it. Nice words, don't you think?At the culinary school in France they told us that the easiest pairing is with Champagne, it goes with everything! And Krug ... especially befor the LVMH takeover ... What else could one expect?regards, Ludovic
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  October 3, 2007 6:36pm ET
Dear Bruce, maybe i am wrong but i feel that Vranken as switch from beiing the poorest champagne ever to be today a solid maison de champagne and could be , like drappier grande sandree a future big player on the champagne world? Isnt it interesting how my ex neighbourg and porsche seller paul francois vranken has build a giant trust in champagne and around(Port for example). This gentleman build itself alone from scratch. I think that coul be a good story to tell , how a car seller became the buyer of Heidseick monopole, charles heidseic and even Pommery! cheers! Ludovic
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  October 3, 2007 9:36pm ET
One of my best memories from the time I lived in Europe (almost 5 of the last 7 years) was the overnight my wife and I had at the old Moet family estate that Moet & Chandon uses to entertain clients (i.e. folks in the business). The French couple who hosted us were great fun. You had to dress for dinner, and they served champagne with each of the five or so courses. The 1990 vintage rose was served with the main course, and it was just delicious. You couldn't get a glass half empty before the servers were there to top you off. Then it was Cuban cigars and more champagne afterward. The kicker was the French maid showing up the next morning with a tray of coffee, tea, and croissants at your room. Man that was great fun. Anyway, I'm all for it Bruce. - Jim
Todd Mcgowan
North Carolina —  October 3, 2007 10:14pm ET
Thanks for the great story.
Kevin Lewis
Baltimore,MD —  October 5, 2007 4:25pm ET
Bruce--I have always thought most wine enthusiasts forget about how wonderful champagne is with every course..I truly appreciate hearing about the wine dinners you and all the other editor's are able to enjoy! I hope one day I will be able enjoy classic vintage wines..Cheers!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 27, 2007 1:25am ET
I attended a seminar on Champagne hosted by C.Curtis MW. That guy is great - a rapid fire wealth of knowledge on everything Champagne. I do agree that while Champagne adds to the excitement of toasts & celebrations it would be nice if we drank it more often w/ meals as well. Your dinner sounded grand. Alas. I work at a steakhouse and 99.9% of the Champagne we sell is for toasts. Believe me, I've tried. While I love our place, I do envy others when I hear about dinners such as this one.

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