By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
Champagne Dinner at the Fish Market
Nothing is more fun for a Champagne fan than to create a whole menu to pair with our favorite bubbles. I have enjoyed dinners like this with many of you, sometimes even at your homes! Last week I dreamed up a salmon-themed menu at home to go with older Champagne for the K&L Champagne team of Scotty, Mari & Kyle. This week, I put together a paired dinner with my friend Henry Hiatt at the Palo Alto Fish Market and it was a great success. I hope that next week I can encourage all of you Champagne fans to do the same on a big or small scale, and share a picture or two with me.
There are a few guiding principles to pairing Champagne, but that being said, it is one of the best wines on the planet for its ease of pairing, and there are very few pitfalls when combining Champagne with food. This is in stark contrast to the two most popular categories of still wine at K&L: rich Cabernet (which only really goes with steak) and rich, oaky Chardonnay (which I am still looking for a pairing for- my old colleague used to joke that cigarettes were the pairing).
Champagne was at the bottom of the ocean 300 million years ago, and the chalk soil that makes the wine so great is littered with shellfish fossils. This connection to the ocean makes Champagne a natural with seafood, and shellfish in particular. Shellfish has a tendency to make whatever wine that is paired with it taste sweeter than it is, so often Champagnes that might seem austere on their own really shine when paired with them. I love drinking extra bruts and very dry blanc de blancs with oysters, scallops & crab in particular. On Wednesday we did two pairings like this that you can see in the video segment: the Bruno Michel Premier Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($39.99) with Kumamoto oyster’s from Humboldt and the Franck Bonville "Belles Voyes" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($67.99) with a crab and avocado salad. The Bruno Michel comes from a very cold site in Pierry, and although not an extra brut, it is still one of the driest blanc de blancs that we have. It went fantastically well with the oysters, cutting the richness and highlighting their saline, savory quality. The Belles Voyes richer side was brought out by the crab, and showed how much weight palate weight that wine hides over its long impression on the mouth.
Spicier foods show better with more open knit Champagne. I love to pair Pinot Noir based Champagne with dishes that pop with spice and tang. At the Fish Market we had saffron prawns in a tomato based sauce with the 2002 Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut Vintage Champagne ($59.99). This richer wine has time on its side at 10 years old, and really opened to show the black cherry chalk that only the village of Bouzy has to offer. A few of the staff commented on how much brighter this bottle shined than the one in the staff tasting… Nothing beats a great dish as a foil. We were then treated to a bottle of 1995 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Brut Champagne from Keith, our Burgundy buyers cellar, which also had the Pinot punch for the savory sauce. What a treat!
For the main course, Dijon crusted tilapia, we went with an older Champagne from the cellar. Although tilapia itself is quite delicate, the panko and mustard crust offered up quite a bit of flavor. The 1996 Leclerc Briant "Cuvée Divine" Brut Champagne is a blend of half and half Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Pascal Leclerc’s entirely bio-dynamic vineyards that are now owned by Roederer. This wine showed a touch of the truffle and butter flavors that really seemed to baste and add richness to the dish. It was the favorite pairing of the night for a few of my colleagues.
One category of Champagne that we did not pair on this occasion is the Meunier based wines of the Western Valley of the Marne. I love the ripe pear fruit and often mushroom-like flavors of these wines with pates of all sorts, especially then now illegal in California Foie Gras. These Champagnes also go very well with savory tarts, caramelized onion and of course mushroom. The 2006 Michel Loriot "Pinot Meunier Vieilles Vignes" Brut Champagne ($49.99) is unbelievable with Parmigiano-Reggiano and trying that pairing with the Loriot family is only the second time that I have ever had a non-French cheese in France.
Another category that is often overlooked is sweeter styles of Champagne. These have fallen out of favor with most Champagne producers and because of that are very difficult to buy. Demi-Sec is often a clearing house for the worst of what producers make, so buy with care. The best of them, which are blended specially ahead of time to make good sweeter Champagne like the Michel Loriot "Marie-Leopold" Sec Champagne ($34.99) go very well with all manner of lighter desserts, especially strawberry shortcake!
I hope that I can inspire a few Champagne fans to play with some pairings. Like I said, please send me a picture or recipe if you find something that works!
A toast to you!