Despite growing up in a Wisconsin household where "anything that could go from the freezer to the oven, that was what we ate," Cheryl Wakerhauser embarked on the study of food science and was drawn to the techniques of French pastry-making and its world of desserts way beyond the cupcakes and cheesecakes she knew as a kid.
In 2001, Wakerhauser opened Pix Pâtisserie in Portland, Ore. She soon succumbed to the charms of Champagne and moved the restaurant, which has earned a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence since 2013, into a space with a bigger cellar, adding a tapas component called Bar Vivant. Wakerhauser acts as a one-woman band, preparing the confections, selecting the wines, "maybe some light plumbing," and publishing a cookbook called Modern French Pastry last fall.
The wine list at Pix now spans 33 pages of sparkling cuvées (Sherry is another specialty). But why fizz with dessert? "Because bubbles can play down the sugar in the dessert while at the same time cleansing the palate," says Wakerhauser. "And another thing they're really good at is cutting through richness. The No. 1 rule is the dessert shouldn't be too sweet and the wine shouldn't be too dry. Most of the French pâtisserie we do is more about the flavor and less about the sugar."
Associate editor Ben O'Donnell asked Wakerhauser for five sparkling wines in a variety of styles to pair with five different dessert profiles.
Wine: René Geoffroy Brut Rosé Champagne Saignée NV (92 points; restaurant price: $54/375ml)
Alternatives: Soter Brut Rosé Yamhill-Carlton District Mineral Springs 2010 (restaurant price: $82), Berdié Brut Rosado Cava Amor Reserva (restaurant price: $22)
Pairing: La Framboise (Raspberry Almond Cakes)
Dessert profile: Fresh berry fruit
"The René Geoffroy Rosé Saignée is just really easy to pair with dessert. We have something we call La Framboise (in the book, it's called Raspberry Almond Cake), but why this pairing works so well is that La Framboise is basically almond paste and a little butter, a little flour and then raspberries folded into it. That's where the René Geoffroy comes in: It's got this nice juicy strawberry-raspberry fruit, and they just work so well together. Jean Baptiste [Geoffroy] was just here, along with a handful of other people traveling around doing tastings. So that's exciting, because they can come and see what I'm doing with their wines and see how things work over here.
"Soter—I'm going to represent Oregon here a little—has a very nice [sparkling] rosé. You could also pair that. A lot of people just think of Cava as something you make your mimosa with, and I'm trying to prove that that's not the case by offering slightly more upscale Cavas. One Cava that is another rosé is the Berdié Reserva Brut that's really nice and balanced. You could do that pairing with La Framboise as well, or even with chocolate."
Wine: Alberto Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona Secco NV (restaurant price: $40)
Pairing: Valentine's Day Chocolate Truffle Heart
Dessert profile: Chocolate
"If you're looking for an interesting, fun wine from Italy, I thought I'd pair this with the Valentine's dessert we're doing, a chocolate truffle heart that's chocolate mousse with a chocolate almond truffle and cinnamon macaron.
"I'll pair that with an Alberto Quacquarini. He's from Italy, and he makes this—you could call it a rosé, but it's so dark it might be like a sparkling red. It's Vernacchia di Serrapetrona. He picks some grapes and dries them, and then he lets other ones hang for longer. So it's almost like three fermentations: He ferments the dried grapes, he ferments the second picking, and then it [undergoes secondary fermentation]. So it's a really unusual wine. Adding the dried grapes in there gives it lots of complexity. And it's dry; there's no residual sugar. Even though it's dry, I think it has that complexity and concentration that it can definitely handle the chocolate mousse. The funny thing about [Quacquarini] is that half of their business is making wine and the other half is making confections. So for me, it was like, I have to go visit this guy!"
Wine: A. Margaine Demi-Sec Champagne NV (restaurant price: $45/375ml)
Pairing: The Jubilee (Champagne Mousse Layered with Pistachio Cake)
Dessert profile: Light, airy mousse
"We make this dessert called the Jubilee. It's basically like a Champagne mousse with layers of pistachio cake, a layer of strawberry coulis, and the cake is topped with kirsch and meringue. What I like about it is it's super light in texture, super light in sweetness. You get a little punch from the strawberry and the kirsch. So for something like that, I think you could go demi-sec with it. I really like the A. Margaine demi-sec, because it's so perfectly balanced that if you weren't really thinking about it, you wouldn't necessarily think it's a demi-sec. It usually has around 30 g/L of sugar. They just match so well as far as the sweetness and the lightness."
Wine: J. Lassalle Brut Champagne Special Club 2000 (restaurant price: $150)
Pairing: Open Hunting Season (Meringue with Pistachio, Almond, Apricot Coulis and Praline-Rum Cream)
Dessert profile: Nutty, dried fruit
"One of my favorite desserts on the list right now is called the Open Hunting Season, and it's layers of a meringue with pistachios, almonds, and then a layer of apricot coulis, and then a praline-rum cream. It's light because of the layers of meringue—it's not cake. And then you have the nice pop of the coulis.
"This is where you could bring in a vintage Champagne, a brut, that has a little tropical note and also a little nutty, brioche-type note, which you can get in a lot of aged vintage Champagne. One of the ones that comes to mind is the J. Lassalle Special Club—the 2000. I opened it not so long ago; it still had a lot of big fruit to it, but that toastiness that you get with age would go really well with that. Sometimes the age gives you flavors that you associate with sweet things. Everyone will taste oloroso [Sherry] and they'll think it's sweet. No, you're just tasting things that you associate with sweetness, like flavors of coffee, flavors of chocolate and mocha. You can kind of play with that same notion with aged Champagne, I think."
Wine: Guy Charlemagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Réserve NV (92 points; restaurant price: $40/375ml)
Alternatives: Gaston Chiquet Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne d'Aÿ NV (restaurant price: $74), Argyle Brut Willamette Valley Vintage Grower Series 2014 (restaurant price: $42)
Pairing: The Oregon Get Down (Pear Rosemary Tart)
Dessert profile: Herbal, savory
"If you want to do a blanc de blancs, I was thinking you pair it with a pear rosemary tart. We infuse rosemary in the ganache, and it has a cashew cream and flambéed pears that we bake into a tart shell. You have nice pear notes that sometimes you find in a blanc de blancs and the savoriness of the rosemary. So something like Guy Charlemagne Blanc de Blancs I could see, or the Gaston Chiquet Blanc de Blancs de Aÿ is a little different than what you get in Mesnil. It's less chalky but still very bright. Argyle, their basic vintage brut, we pair that with a lot of our desserts; I think you could pair that with the pear rosemary."